SAN FRANCISCO — While Google may be chiefly thought of as the leader in traditional Internet search, it’s long been eager to find new outlets in the burgeoning mobile space — leveraging the mobile Web, wireless search and booming growth in smartphones.
Those efforts are now more critical to Google than ever, according to Vic Gundotra, vice president for engineering at Google, who spoke here today at the Web 2.0 Expo.
“This year, we will sell more Internet-connected phones as an industry than the entire notebook market,” Gundotra said, adding that as companies like Google make use of the new capabilities in devices, “we are going to do amazing things with the camera and voice recognition. These devices will become our agents and friends, support us with advice, be our friends.”
“What we are going to see is going to surprise people,” he said.
That might not be much of a stretch, considering that Google has gone from being purely a player in Internet search to pioneering efforts in Web-based e-mail (courtesy of Gmail, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this week) as well as mobile operating systems (think Android), Voice over IP (with the upcoming Google Voice) and the Web browser (Google Chrome).
But for the world’s largest online search company, the proliferation in smartphones as a viable Web platform is also creating a fundamental shift in how Google thinks about Web applications — and the tools and data that can be used to build those apps.
“First of all, we have to recognize that this is not the same model as the PC,” Gundotra said. “The device has eyes — a camera — a microphone for voice recognition, a skin — touch — and knows its location. You can just say ‘flowers,’ and we know you are in SF and we give you a flower shop just down the street.”
Yet mobile development still has a sizable hurdle to overcome, Gundotra said: the problem of control, with several different platforms that are all different. That creates a great deal of pain for developers, who have to make applications work on the iPhone, Android, RIM Blackberry, Palm, Nokia and others.
Gundotra see one solution as being new Web standards. He demonstrated a new mobile version of Gmail, currently under development at Google, that uses the HTML 5 standard built into all the latest mobile Web browsers.
That can help developers create write-one, deploy-anywhere applications. For instance, he showed an iPhone running an offline version of HTML 5-based mobile Gmail, and then showed the same application, with the same codebase, running on an Android phone.
“That is what gets us really excited,” he said. “When we make it available, people will see this as the first true mobile Web app.”
Google’s got other plans as well in mobile. Voice has emerged as one key mobile feature where Gundotra said Google is focusing, adding that the company is already seeing great success with voice recognition searches.
Although he would not provide specific numbers, Gundotra did say that the service “is growing and growing fast.”
While voice might seem to be far removed from Google’s origins in search, Gundotra said the company elected to go into voice rather than form a partnership because it believes the technology is fundamental to mobile applications.
“At Google we love partnerships, but a few things are core, like search — and we think voice search is core so we do it ourselves,” he said. “We want that technology in-house, so we can apply Google expertise to that problem.”