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Victory on mobile belongs to Google in 2013

Data beats Apple's polish

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Open ... and Shut It's clear. The way to win in mobile is to solve an exceptionally difficult problem. Apple first did it by streamlining the mobile experience through an integrated OS and app-discovery and installation experience. Google then went a step further and crunched mountains of data to make mobile services breathtakingly powerful. The next big mobile company needs to be prepared to do something equally hard. And probably different.

Yet there's no sign that Google has stopped pushing itself to do even harder things. And that is why I think Google is both the mobile company of the year in 2012 and 2013.

Have you used or seen demonstrated Google Now? It's brilliant. Quick, here's a peek:

It knows when you're starting your commute home, and volunteers traffic information. It knows that I'm a (very sad) Arsenal fanatic, and will update me on the score (which, sadly, I will already know). It knows where I am, and can tell me when the right subway line to my hotel in New York is coming.

It is genius, and has me tempted to dump my iPhone for an Android device.

Except, of course, that Android isn't as good as iOS when it comes to polish. Which is why I'm glad that Google's data-crunching genius is also available on my iPhone in the form of Maps, among other services, including Search. I ask Google for every kind of information, checking for local addresses, restaurant reviews and so on. When I had to call a customer in Beijing recently, I used Google Voice, because for $0.02 per minute, Google let me use my normal mobile phone rather than dialing through Skype.

I don't know or care how Google does it. I just care that Google makes my life easier, presumably paying for it with all the ads that other people click on. Somehow, this model whereby other people click on Google ads, turns out to make Google a ton of money.

What about other contenders in mobile? Instagram? Please. It lets people take pictures and share them. This is useful, but it's not a hard problem to solve, which is why its ilk now routinely nab tens of millions of users who will quickly dump it when the next social fad comes along.

Facebook? Possibly. If the company actually learns to show me the parts of my social graph I actually want to see, I just might start using the service again. Instead, it requires constant pruning on my part to block out people I felt too embarrassed not to friend, but still lets them intrude in my "personal" space. That would be a hard problem to solve. Facebook has yet to crack it, though.

Waze? Now this could be interesting. It actually does mapping/navigation in a way that combines both serious data crunching and social collaboration to help me drive from point A to point B without running afoul of traffic, police, or other obstacles. Sadly, were Apple to buy it, as is rumoured, Apple might well ruin it.

Others? I can't think of any off-hand. Most of the mobile companies I know are either solving easy problems like letting me track calorie consumption. It's not that they're not useful, but rather that they're not tackling big problems that I'd be happy to pay for, either with cash or with my time and attention.

Google has done this. It doesn't get always get the press, but Google's big-data approach to mobile is a winner, and one that will win for years to come. Now if only I could persuade Google to stop trying to own the non-data-intensive aspects of the mobile value chain. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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