Google pegs browser as future of mobile apps

Even Google can't afford to write applications for all mobile platforms, an executive says

Browsers are the future of mobile applications and they are just beginning to gain the features that will make new uses of mobile phones compelling, a Google executive said Thursday.

The economics of software development is a big factor driving the industry toward Web-based applications, said Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google. He spoke on a panel discussion at the MobileBeat conference in San Francisco.

"The challenge that we have is the cost. ... We're not rich enough" to develop versions of mobile applications for Research In Motion, Windows Mobile, iPhone and the many other mobile-phone software platforms, Gundotra said.

He expects the industry increasingly to build mobile applications for the relatively small number of mobile browsers instead. Those browsers are still in their infancy, he said, citing new enhancements such as the addition of geolocation, application caching and faster javascript compilation to several major browsers just in the past year.

Geolocation determines a user's location using information from nearby Wi-Fi networks and shares that information with Web sites so they can provide more targeted information to the user.

Apple's iPhone browser only added geolocation capability in June, and Google on Wednesday announced the first version of its home page for the iPhone that takes advantage of that feature, Gundotra said.

"The rate of innovation happening in the browser is surprising," Gundotra said. Just as improvements in the PC-based Web experience helped make the explosion of social networking possible, advancements in mobile browsers will allow the Web to take center stage on cell phones, he said.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs correctly foresaw that a good Web experience was the key to users adopting mobile data, and Apple deserves credit for showing the world how consumers would use an unlimited data plan with a compelling interface, Gundotra said.

He cited an anecdote he said demonstrates the potential of the mobile Web. In India in the past month, a big national mobile operator introduced low-cost plans for unlimited data.

"We discovered that because we saw huge spikes in our logs. We thought they were errors. ... We quickly did some investigating and we discovered that consumers were flocking to this very-low-cost data plan, and the usage was just spiking -- you know, 50X," Gundotra said.

Better browsers and data plans in developing countries could greatly expand the mobile Web, he said.

Google wants to partner with carriers rather than cut them out of the revenue stream with ad-supported services, Gundotra said. He cited Google offering Gmail built into phones sold by Japanese carriers NTT DoCoMo and KDDI, configured with carrier-linked Gmail addresses for the subscriber.

Services such as Gmail and YouTube can help operators attract and retain subscribers, he said.

"They play an incredibly important role. We partner with them. I think sometimes people misunderstand our ambitions as trying to cut them out," Gundotra said.

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