Google has never been shy about diving into new arenas. However, last November’s announcement of the founding of the Open Handset Alliance (consisting of over 30 corporations involved in mobile technologies) to develop the mobile platform dubbed “Android” was one of its boldest initiatives yet.
Android is an open source operating system intended to power a new generation of smartphones similar to Apple’s iPhone. Though the alliance includes companies such as Motorola and Samsung, Google is clearly the major player.
The stakes are huge. Whoever controls the operating system used by smartphones will dominate the industry in the same way that Microsoft’s control of Windows gives it dominance over desktop PCs.
Can Google succeed? That depends on the level of participation it can garner from the wireless carriers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.). As anyone who has been locked into a two-year cell phone contract can tell you, wireless carriers don’t exactly embrace the concept of freedom of choice or welcome change. Indeed, Apple was able to convince only one carrier – AT&T – to carry its revolutionary iPhone. Any player in this space – Google, Apple, or Microsoft – will face major obstacles in dealing with wireless carriers.
Ironically, Google’s ability to push Android may depend on the iPhone’s long-term success. If wireless carriers see the iPhone as a real threat, they may be more willing to join with Google’s open initiative.
The key to Google’s long-term smartphone strategy? Perhaps they just want to have a horse in the race, just in case it begins to look as if someone else might break away from the pack and make a run for the roses. No one knows for sure when mobile computing will take off, but Google cannot afford to let anyone else dominate this market.
Why? Precisely because dominance in the world of smartphones will affect dominance in the search world. At a minimum, Google wants to ensure it is the default search engine for any smartphone search. Failure to do so opens the door for another search engine to grow its market share.
Google has managed to stay ahead of Yahoo!, MSN, and other search engines in overall search, and it seems unlikely anyone will ever overtake Google simply by building a better set of search algorithms. However, a real threat to Google’s search engine dominance would be the emergence of an entirely new technology that fundamentally changes the game. Smartphones could be just such a technology.
In the past, Google has taken aggressive steps to keep this sort of threat from emerging. For example, a few years ago, Microsoft tried to grow its share of the search market by integrating web search with desktop search. This was a classic Microsoft maneuver – when a competitive threat emerges, declare it part of the Windows operating system, and embed it in the PC desktop. In this case, Google beat Microsoft to the punch by releasing Google Desktop, soon widely considered superior to Microsoft’s Windows Search, effectively cutting off a threat to the Google core business.
One can view Android as a replay of this strategy, with Apple replacing Microsoft as the threat to Google. Apple’s iPhone has the potential to be a game-changer, pushing Google to promote a competing operating system.
In competing with the iPhone, Google touts the advantages of Android’s open architecture over Apple’s closed architecture, using a classic strategy taken right from the Microsoft playbook. Windows is the ultimate closed system software, yet Microsoft is happy to tout the advantages of open systems and open standards when it helps them take on a competitor.
Therein lies the irony of the position Google now finds itself in – in seeking to preserve its dominance of the search world, the company increasingly resembles Microsoft. But, when it comes to competition, the Google radar is extremely sensitive and no strategy will go untried if necessary to ensure survival AS the fittest.