Google, Apple: Two mobile software visions

Douglas MacMillan
24 Jul 2009

When, a maker of software for corporate information technology departments, created a smartphone version of its product last year, it bucked a major trend.

Instead of creating an application that customers could download through an outlet like Apple's iPhone App Store or Google's Android Marketplace, the company built a customized Web site so users of many different devices could use the software via their phones' browsers without downloading anything. Tailoring software for the five big mobile-phone platforms—iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile—"would have taken five times as much work," says principal architect Pat Casey. is hardly alone in discovering that the Web can be a more convenient place to host mobile applications than on devices themselves. The argument for Web-centric mobile computing got a boost this month when Google's vice-president of engineering, Vic Gundotra, told a San Francisco technology conference on July 16 that the Web, not downloadable apps, is the future of smartphones. "Over the next several years, the browser … will become the platform that matters," Gundotra said during a panel discussion.

Less Clout Ahead for Apple?

The weight that Google threw behind the online style of mobile software development isn't surprising. Much of Google's software, including applications for getting directions, creating documents, and sending e-mail, resides on the Web and isn't downloaded onto users' PCs or phones.

But if enough developers write Web-based applications that aren't exclusive to the iPhone or other devices, as Google hopes, Apple and other hardware makers could have less clout when it comes to keeping customers loyal to their platforms. The phone makers also could miss out on revenue shared with software makers when users download their applications. Apple declined to comment for this story.

"Suddenly, the browser is an application platform," says Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Opera Software, which makes browsers for PCs and handheld devices and claims a 23% share of mobile-phone browsers, about equal to Apple's Safari, according to Web analytics firm StatCounter. Opera is improving its browser to run more types of mobile applications on more phones, von Tetzchner says.

Creating software for browsers gives developers a big advantage, according to von Tetzchner. It opens a potentially big new market for mobile apps: consumers with not-so-smart phones. Opera Mini, a stripped-down version of the company's browser, gives basic phones made by Nokia, Motorola, and others the ability to access Web sites and applications. Developers whose software runs in a browser can likewise gain quicker access to emerging markets, where phones are generally less capable of running specially designed applications stored inside them, he says.

Concerns About Security

Other companies have favored developing smartphone software for browsers rather than specific hardware as well. Wireless carriers including Vodafone have called for consolidating the number of operating systems in the market, and for a push toward more mobile Web development. In May, Vodafone worked with carriers China Mobile, Softbank (9984.T), and Verizon Wireless to launch the Joint Innovation Lab, an initiative to educate would-be developers of mobile widgets and share with them the proceeds of software sales. "We very much believe in the idea that the [mobile] applications of the future will be running inside the browser," says Pieter Knook, Vodafone's director of Internet services.

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