Putting search in the hands of mobile users

26 Jan 2006

Google was the Asian tech story of the week last week, with news that it had agreed to block politically unsuitable searches in order to gain access to the China market.

Google has been excoriated for this deal with the devil. Fair enough. It is a cynical arrangement, and a company whose prime mission is to enable access to information imposes censorship deserves all the opprobrium it gets.

Yet Convergence does feel a tiny twinge of sympathy. Microsoft and Yahoo have made the same arrangement, but without the same criticism. Yahoo notoriously helped send a blogging Chinese journalist to jail. Google's shareholders also expect it to follow the law of the land in whichever country it operates.

But it's also worth noting that these deals also show that anyone who wants to be part of 21st century cannot do without tools like Google and Yahoo - even governments that strenuously oppose the rights of citizens to have untrammeled access to information.

This political tale also holds a commercial moral that telecom companies would do well to heed; namely, the power of both the brands and the tools of the top Internet companies.

For that reason, another recent Google initiative is worth of some serious attention. It has signed a three-year deal with Motorola to put a Google icon on Mot handsets, starting most likely from the second quarter.

That puts search in the hands of mobile users, where it is sorely missed. Search is the single most common use of the Web, and the need to find information doesn't cease when consumers step out their front door; often it becomes more urgent.

Scott Durschlag, corporate VP and a global general manager for Motorola's mobile devices, agrees. 'It's amazing that no one else is doing this,' he said. 'We kind of think that the walled garden of the Net is a really very limited one.'

The big question is how operators will react. Based on previous experience, one would say 'not very well'. But the signs across Europe and the US that service providers are loosening their embrace of the walled garden.

The big players, 3 and Vodafone, are large enough to forge global deals and to acquire premium content. But most of the world's 600 or so mobile operators don't have that kind of heft or global brand footprint.

The handset companies do. That scares mobile carriers somewhat, because they're used to controlling the whole mobile experience. But the mobile Internet is bringing in other experiences, which is why you find Motorola signing up two other deals - one with Yahoo for IM and Kodak to make it easier and cheaper for consumers to store and print images.

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