Google's Mobile Challenge

Wireless devices will be a key distribution channel for online services, but mobile networks present myriad challenges for Web companies trying to break into this nascent and complex market, said Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) executives at the SmartPhone Show in London today.

Speaking in his morning keynote at the Symbian Ltd. -sponsored trade show, and afterward at a "reception" for reporters, developers, and partners, Google's senior vice president of engineering and research Alan Eustace underscored the role that mobile networks can play in helping Google achieve its mission of organizing all kinds of information and making it accessible and useful through a variety of channels.

Naturally enough, this translates into a “huge opportunity” for advertising on mobile phones, said Eustace -- initially via mobile adwords and click-to-call services, and later moving into click-to-buy capabilities.

As is usual at this sort of event, Google emphasized its caring-sharing, partnership approach to working with mobile carriers and device manufacturers -- although this strategy clearly has its limits.

Eustace pointed to deals with KDDI Corp. in Japan and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) in Europe as examples of how Google likes to do business.

But when asked why the company isn’t embedded as a search option alongside Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) in Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)'s new mobile search application, he said, "I’d rather see us do something that’s branded or unique.”

Eustace also emphasized the challenges the search giant faces in accessing mobile phone users, including confusing pricing, device usability issues, battery power, network capability, and more.

“Everyone knows it’s hard to get the ball rolling in this space,” said Eustace. “This is a challenging ecosystem, it’s very difficult for us to access this [market].”

Some other snippets from Google’s public comments at the show:

  • Server-side infrastructure to render applications and services usable on mobile devices (a la BlackBerry) is still lacking.

  • Search phrases on mobile are similar to the PC, averaging 2.3 words, despite the awkward text-input.

  • Google is working with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to develop standards that would allow web designers to build “mobile site maps” for web crawlers.

  • The firm hinted that a Google Maps application native to the Symbian Ltd. OS is the on way, along similar lines to the recently launched Palm Inc. application.

  • Google’s free SMS service will likely make a comeback once problems with “aggregators” (who were, presumably, abusing the service) have been solved.

Discussing the advances in processor and memory technology in recent decades, Eustace waxed philosophical. “We’re now in the golden age of technology,” he said. “This is as good as it gets.”

— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider

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