Google may have its own skin in the mobile software game — after all, it’s the prime mover behind the Android mobile operating system. But when it comes down to it, the search giant doesn’t really care which handset or operating system comes to dominate the market.
Instead, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) thinks it’s found a win-win situation, because it sees cloud-based services like Gmail making the mobile world go ’round.
That was the sentiment expressed by Vic Gundotra, vice president of mobile and developer platforms at the company, who spoke on a panel at the Morgan Stanley Technology Conference in San Francisco.
With much of the buzz at last week’s Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona centering on upcoming Internet-centric phones, it’s hard to deny that advanced mobile apps and services — and the phones that support them — are on everyone’s mind. But Gundotra said he was surprised to see the optimism for the smartphone industry continue in the current economy, a fact he attributed to mobile phones’ transition to personal computing devices.
For Google, the proliferation of Internet use on these devices — and the shift away from a fragmented landscape of proprietary phone operating systems — is especially important.
“If the Web emerges as the ‘metaplatform’ across all these devices, that’s music to Google’s ears,” he said.
That’s especially true considering the expense facing developers of keeping up with a fragmented market. Gundotra said that while he’s responsible for a number of mobile apps, like Docs and Chrome, he can’t afford to port them all to the major platforms out there, like the Apple iPhone, Nokia, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile, Android and J2ME.
“It’s too much fragmentation, and I would argue I have more engineering talent than most firms,” he said.
Instead, more important is that mobile phone browsers implement HTML 5, which Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) Safari, Google Chrome and Opera have all done.
“In this new class of high-powered browsers, Gmail, Maps, they rock on those phones,” he said. “The others will be struggling to catch up.”
The growing importance of a Web-based applications hearkens back to the Net’s own growth as a new platform for services over the past decade. That trend led to the growth of companies like Google and concepts like Software as a Service — while striking a blow against traditional software vendors.
The similarity wasn’t lost on Gundotra, who previously served as general manager of platform evangelism at Microsoft.
“Apple exists because the Web won. It’s true. I was responsible for evangelism at Microsoft. We were winning pre-Web,” he said. But with the move to the Internet as a platform for delivery, operating systems and hardware platforms became less of a barrier to rivals.
“As the Web emerged, all interesting apps moved to the Web platform. That dynamic is repeating itself in mobile,” he said.
Praise for the Apple iPhone
And that’s why there’s so much interest in the iPhone, Gundotra added, citing a report that said 62 percent of mobile Internet traffic in the U.S. belongs to the Apple device.
To Gundotra, Apple came out on top because the market for Internet access had been constrained for so long. When it debuted both an adequate mobile browser and an application model that met developers’ pent-up demand to open up handsets to the Internet, there was no stopping it — nor the trend that Apple began.
“Looking back ten years from now, we won’t just look at the iPhone as a great industrial design or at the App Store, but that it introduced the model of Internet use,” Gundotra added.
As for Google’s own mobile software ambitions, Gundotra also has an idea for what Android’s legacy might be.
In response to an audience question on why Google chose to give away Android for free after investing so much money in it, Gundotra pointed out that much of the Internet’s basic protocols had been given away, which helped lead to its success — and Google has a similar plan for Android.
“By making Android open source, anyone can build an Internet phone at this level,” he said. “Anyone from a Chinese [original equipment manufacturer] on can build a phone, with an Internet experience … and I think that’s what Android will be remembered for, because it costs nothing to build it.”
Yet there’s still some room for mobile apps that aren’t housed in the Web, Gundotra said. Along with Android, he said Google has a number of mobile projects in the works that take advantage of a compatible phone’s features to differentiate the apps from their desktop equivalent.
For example, mobile apps can use a phone’s speaker, built-in camera or touchpad and microphone for input and output.
As a result, he said he sees mobile apps as being mostly those that require access to a phone’s underlying services and hardware, such as the processor or other components.
But for a large percent of devices, “Web apps will win out in the long term,” he said.
That’s true even when it comes to netbooks, the proliferating, low-cost notebook PCs currently proving one of the few bright spots in hardware sales. The sector has become so enticing that even non-PC makers may be eying it. For instance, mobile phone leader Nokia is considering entering the netbook market, according to recent comments by its CEO.
But Gundotra stayed on-message, saying he didn’t think the operating system would be important even to netbooks.
“If Nokia has a netbook with great browser, Google will run fine on it,” he said. “What you are seeing on the netbook is the emergence of the Web and the cloud-based standards, and these netbooks are low-cost entry points.”
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.