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Google Sees Limited Future for Mobile App Stores

If you the think the future of application distribution for mobile devices is all about who can build the best App Store, Google begs to differ.

Google's vice president of engineering, Vic Gundotra, recently touted the advantages of applications delivered through the browser as opposed to a separate online storefront.

"We believe the Web has won and over the next several years as these mobile devices improve their browser capabilities, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters, Gundotra said at the MobileBeat conference. "And that's certainly where Google is investing and putting our best applications and we're very excited about what that means for the future."

That said, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is hardly abandoning the online store paradigm. It has a number of popular applications on the iPhone App Store and, of course, developed and promotes Android Market the online store front for apps developed for Android mobile devices.

Meanwhile Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) App Store for the iPhone has shown no signs of slowing its record-breaking growth. Most recently, the company reported there's been over 1.5 billion software downloads since the App Store debuted a year ago, and it now carries over 60,000 applications.

Gondotra's remark echoes statements he made at Google's own I/O developer conference in late May, where he touted the power and potential of browser-based applications. In one example, he showed a browser-based 3-D environment similar to a rich interactive game, with lifelike textures and lighting.

"What we clearly see happening from the iPhone, Palm, Android and across the industry is a move to incredibly powerful browsers," Gundotra said during MobileBeat.

Betting on the Web, not mobile platforms

Compared to other tech markets like PCs, the mobile market is very fragmented and Gundotra said Google doesn't intend to support each mobile platform with platform-specific applications.

"The challenge we have is cost," he said. "Even Google, we aren't rich enough to support the RIM platform, the Windows platform, the iPhone platform and the many variations of Nokia platforms ... We can't do it, it's too expensive."

Analyst Maribel Lopez thinks the browser distribution model is emerging, but it will coexist with online storefronts for some time, particularly until more high-speed networks are broadly available.

"You will still need to browse somewhere to get those apps, so I look at the app store concept as more a discovery mechanism," Lopez, CEO of Lopez Research, told InternetNews.com.

"Google believes that users should have choice in deciding how they access their information," a spokesperson for the search giant said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

"Some users prefer native applications while others prefer the mobile web, as it more closely mirrors the desktop web in overall look, feel and functionality. We believe that both methods offer a rich mobile experience, and we are committed to providing the best possible experience to users, regardless of the underlying development technology."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Analyst Ben Bajarin credits Google and Palm, with its webOS software, for forward-thinking strategies.

"The immediate solution for the market is the local client," Bajarin, with Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com. "Google sees the long term direction of the industry is that the Internet will be the way all software runs and is distributed.

"If you try and cover the market with all the different platforms out there today, you have your work cut out for you."

Bajarin thinks we'll eventually get to a kind of write once, run anywhere model for mobile applications that won't be tied to specific devices. He said the release of Flash 10 from Adobe will be a key milestone for helping apps run on multiple mobile platforms along with advances in semiconductors that support the Web.

"We're in the infant stages of what these devices can do, but we're clearly moving to very rich Internet software," he said. "There are a fair number of trends aligning over the next 12 months, new concepts and form factors as well as better mobile broadband."

Update adds comments by Google spokesperson