As people increasingly rely on powerful mobile phones instead of PCs to access the Web, their surfing habits are bound to change. What’s more, online advertising could lose its role as the Web’s primary economic engine, putting Google’s leadership role into question.
“The new paradigm is mobile computing and mobility,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “That has the potential to change the economics of the Internet business and to redistribute profits yet again.”
In recent decades, the power of industry giants like I.B.M. and Microsoft, which once seemed unassailable, waned as computing shifted from big mainframes to PCs, and from PCs to the Internet. Many analysts say it is now Google that is faced with a less certain future in the face of another shift.
Still, they say Google saw this coming years ago and has been preparing for it. Google executives now say they are confident that the company will thrive as the mobile Internet grows.
“We are incredibly excited about the opportunities that we see in mobile,” Vic Gundotra, a vice president of engineering at Google who oversees mobile applications, said in an interview on Monday. “We have invested a considerable amount, and we can now really provide a compelling mobile experience.”
Top Google executives, including Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive, have long said that the mobile Internet was Google’s biggest opportunity for new growth. They orchestrated a string of acquisitions of companies with mobile-related technology, including Android, maker of a cellphone operating system; GrandCentral, a service for making calls that can bypass telephone lines; and AdMob, an advertising network for mobile applications. The AdMob deal is awaiting approval from regulators.
Google also invested far more aggressively than its competitors in mapping technologies and services tied to a user’s location, which are likely to become the vital underpinnings of new advertising systems on GPS-equipped mobile phones. Last month, Google came close to paying more than $500 million to acquire Yelp, a Web site for business listings and reviews. While the deal collapsed at the last minute, Google’s interest underscored its determination to become a force in mobile advertising.
And in recent years, Google has worked systematically to loosen the hold that other companies have on the mobile industry.
In 2008, for example, Google bid $4.7 billion in a government auction of the nation’s airwaves. While Google had no intention of winning, it bid to ensure that the airwaves would be subject to so-called openness requirements, meaning that Verizon Wireless, which won the bidding, would not be able to exclude Google services like Web search, Gmail and maps from phones using those frequencies.
The expected unveiling on Tuesday of the Nexus One, a thin, touch-screen handset built to Google’s specifications and made by the Taiwanese company HTC, is a challenge to a newly minted industry power: Apple, whose iPhone dominates the high end of the smartphone market. While the iPhone sends millions of people to Google’s search and other services, some of the company’s applications, like Google Voice, have not been allowed to run on the phone.
Analysts say that with the Nexus One, which Google plans to sell to consumers directly, the company is trying to free itself from Apple’s growing influence. It also wants to broaden the appeal of Android’s technology. The phone is expected to be sold unlocked, allowing consumers to buy service plans separately.
Mr. Gundotra declined to discuss specifics of the Nexus One. But he said all of Google’s mobile moves were driven by one objective: pushing the industry to open up in an attempt to replicate on mobile phones the environment that has allowed the PC-driven Web to grow at explosive rates.
“Before the mobile Web really started to take off, there were many barriers to consumers,” he said. “Sometimes it was limited choice about what you could do with your phone,” he said, adding that in some cases, it could take as many as 19 clicks for a user to get to Google’s site.
Some of Google’s moves, like its bid for spectrum, confounded many in the industry. But analysts say that Google’s actions proved shrewd and that the company has, to a large extent, helped open up the mobile Web and ensure that its own services, and its ads, will be accessible to all.