Google promises mobile software platform to challenge Windows
Getting in to Gears
Analysis The most critical battle in the wireless world is to take the reins of the mobile internet as it evolves, and that means all the majors are trying to create a software platform that will make the web even more usable on a small device than it is on a PC, and so drive new applications and revenue streams.
The company that plays the greatest role in defining these new behaviors and interfaces can hope to gain Microsoft-class influence on the mobile platform, and with the exception of the Windows giant itself, all the other candidates are increasingly going the open source route, to build up a rich software base and large developer community in the least possible time.
Sun, Adobe, Microsoft, Yahoo and Nokia have all taken new strides in the mobile internet direction recently, with the launches of JavaFX, Apollo, Silverlight, Go Mobile and Widsets, respectively. Now it is the turn of Google, and the search giant is looking to move squarely on to the high ground recently grasped by Sun and Nokia, and create a whole new mobile operating system/development platform to rival Java, Series 60 and of course Windows Mobile/.Net CF.
One of the key elements will be the new Gears software, announced by Google to enable web work to be conducted offline in the absence of a strong connection - a feature that, while it crosses all platforms, could be particularly significant to highly mobile devices, though hardly welcome to the cellular carriers and their ambitions to provide always-on access.
'Always-on', despite the dreams of Intel and others, remains a myth outside developed urban areas, and will remain so for years, until wireless networks are built out with sufficient ubiquity and capacity to support strong connections to almost any device in any location. In the long wait for that day, there has been parallel interest in enabling web services and applications to function more effectively offline.
Microsoft has hung back on this, and in the wake of the software titan spending $6 billion for digital advertising company aQuantive, clearly stepping into Google's core territory, the search giant is responding in kind and making its most aggressive move yet to break Microsoft's monopoly of the client desktop (or mobile) environment.
Google Gears is an open source technology for creating offline web applications. An extension of the browser, it "addresses a major user concern: availability of data and applications when there's no internet connection available, or when a connection is slow or unreliable," said Google in a statement. Gears will work with all major browsers and across Windows, Mac and Linux, and is likely in future to be a key component of Google's planned mobile operating environment, which is also likely to sit on top of various base OSs. Of course, Google has its eye on setting de facto standards, and will release a set of APIs to developers that can also be adopted by other software houses.
The first Google product to feature Gears will be Google Reader, which allows consumers automatically to track updates to hundreds of Web sites. Gears' biggest impact could be in developing regions, where poor or non-existent internet connections limit access to digital information.
The technology has been released to the open source community for testing and enhancement, but already key players in the open source and browser communities are rushing to pledge support, no doubt seeing their chance to take part in a Google ecosystem and so boost their own opportunities to chip away at the Microsoft machine.
Opera, maker of the most advanced Web 2.0-style browser currently available for mobile and set-top platforms, raced to endorse Gears, as did open source group Mozilla, which is working on a mobile browser too. These companies will hope that Google, in creating a software platform to rival Series 60 or JavaFX, will stop short of designing a whole new browser, but will instead - like Intel and Nokia itself - go with an existing open source option.
"Opera and Google share the common goal of making web applications richer and more robust," said Håkon Wium Lie, chief technology officer at Opera Software. "Developers have long desired the functionality and flexibility Google Gears can offer browsers."
Adobe, whose Apollo is also geared to so-called Web 3.0 (which adds a robust enterprise-class dimension to the classic Web 2.0 features such as collaboration and dynamic content), said it would make the Gears API available in Apollo. Together, said chief software architect Kevin Lynch, the products would help create a standard crossbrowser local storage capability. Apollo is an internet client that works on the PC or mobile device without a browser, gaining direct access to the hard drive so it can be used offline as well as over the internet. It combines Flash, HTML and PDF techniques and a raft of developer tools is already available.
The ability to work locally or online and synchronize the two later - something Microsoft has supported only halfheartedly with applications like Groove - will be very important in a world where web services are the major way of operating, but where connections are not always available or adequate.
This means that Gears, although not itself mobile specific, will form an important part of Google's mobile platform going forward. The company's CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking last week at the All Things Digital conference in California, played down the ongoing speculation about Google-branded cellphones or networks, and said the mobile strategy centered on creating a software development platform on which its own and third party applications would run.
This would potentially lead to a user environment that would be optimized for mobile usage of the type of services that drive Google's advertising revenues, giving the company access to a base of 2bn users and rising.
So far Google has adapted various applications, such as GMail and Maps, for mobile platforms and is working with cellcos to offer these to a wide base, and it has embraced the potential of combining locationbased services and advertising on a portable device. But despite some work on widget-based interfaces - and area where Yahoo is more advanced - it has not made a significant contribution to the effort to create a specifically mobile software environment that will make the small-screen internet a reality.
That could change when the first fruits of the project Schmidt outlined appear, and it is clear the plan is an ambitious one, aiming to set de facto standards and force other mobile software majors to play along. It is likely, for instance, that Google would support all major operating systems - rather than trying to create a new one, as some have rumored - and work with Java and Ajax.
But it will undoubtedly take on the companies behind those systems at the higher software levels where the battle for power is most crucial - the user interface, mobile browser and content frameworks.
As such it could support Java but also go head-to-head with Sun's JavaFX Mobile, an integrated platform that combines OS, browser, user interface and other key elements of the mobile internet experience, all delivered in pure Java. Another key target, apart from Microsoft, would be Nokia's rapidly growing software platform, centered on Series 60, and also likely to support multiple OSs soon.
With its very different business model, Nokia will find it vital to hold the reins in how the mobile internet interface evolves, to ensure it is geared to the Finnish giant's own revenue streams and business approach, not to Google's.
Schmidt said Google is working with various telcos, initially on new point applications and then on the broader platform. He reiterated the key point that the form factor of cellphones meant that mobile internet services would have to be different from those on PCs, and that new apps would be critical. Apparently the company has been working particularly closely with AT&T and Sprint Nextel, and several European operators.
Despite the rumors of the Google phone, it seems increasingly likely that, rather than follow in Apple's footsteps, Google will try to come out with a software platform that is sufficiently attractive to consumers and operators to be widely adopted on many devices and networks - which would explain Sprint's interest, since the cellco is determined to launch its WiMAX network with as many differentiated internetfocused functions as possible.
Rather than designing phones, Google will look to partner with manufacturers to have them release certain high profile models with the full Google experience - and sources say it is already in talks with some Asian players about this.
Much will depend, for Google, on whether large players like Sun and Motorola want to work with it or against it. Microsoft and Nokia are logical enemies, although the latter will want to accommodate the search leader on its handsets even as it encroaches on Google's turf with its mobile internet strategy. But other majors are less known quantities, and Google will do well to play down any talk that it might take on new competitors by announcing phones or building networks. The mobile software giants will be a sufficiently big challenge, and the company will need the major cellcos on its side, not worried that it might become a new rival.
Copyright © 2007, Faultline 
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