Originally when I cooked up this idea, it was going to be all about how Google didn’t really get mobile, and how they were getting sidetracked by Android. I still think Android is more of a distraction than Google shining at mobile, but I do think they’re at least starting to understand what they need to do to continue to be successful and relevant as people leave the computers at their desks and turn more to phones and tablets.
Ironically, part of Google’s initial problem was their partnership with Apple. By providing data for native apps from Apple instead of doing their own work, Google never got into the mindset of building their own native apps for all their services on all devices. Instead, if you wanted proper Google apps, you had to buy a Google phone. The issue is that Google doesn’t so much care about the OS or the device nearly as much as they do about getting you to use their services. That’s why you see so many Android variants and versions out in the wild, and Google not doing a whole lot to step in and require some consistency. They’re getting your data either way, so they have no reason to care until things get so bad you leave phone, and thus move to an environment where you could be faced with alternatives to Google.
Really, Google should have been pushing for better Maps and YouTube apps on iOS before their respective contracts ended, even offering to write them for Apple. Google should have been pushing for turn-by-turn in the old maps application before Apple started negotiations that ultimately fell apart. Luckily, with Google’s initial contracts with Apple having expired, we’re getting what should have always been the Google experience for iPhone, mobile apps made by Google that use their backend services. Google gets the user data they need for selling ads, you get the stuff you wanted, how you wanted it, and everyone wins. At least, if you’re on 1 of the 2 major mobile operating systems.
If you’re on something like Windows Phone, it’s really more like only part of Google has learned its lesson. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying that the stated reason of mobile Internet Explorer not being good enough is crap. I have no idea what the “real” reason would be, but their official explanation seems silly at best. Personally, I’m guessing it’s just some petty anti-Microsoft nonsense.
The biggest mobile problem Google has is the temptation to focus on, and push, Android, instead of its apps. Google isn’t out to make money on Android per se. It’s freely available to handset manufacturers, and the source code is regularly released publicly. Anybody can make an Android phone and sell it without Google getting any sort of cut of the action. What matters for Google is getting people to use its services from their phones and tablets. The type of device or its operating system are irrelevant, that’s the whole point of web applications and services. Google adding restrictions based on devices and types defeats the very purpose of…well…Google.
I get the point of having a mobile operating system that’s open, easy to program for, and on a lot of devices out there. It’s part of what made Windows successful way back when. However, in trying to make Android a success, Google runs the risk of making its services, and thus the ads they display on those services, less desirable, and opening themselves up for someone to come up with a service that might not be “Google good”, but is at least good enough, and works anywhere, and has apps for everything, unlike Google.
If Google really wants to do mobile right, then they need to have an app for anything with more than a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of users. That means not only iOS and Android, but also Windows Phone, and yes, even Blackberry. The promise of Google is that it works flawlessly, from anywhere. With mobile phones, that means mobile apps, and it means mobile apps for everything. Google should not only be writing apps for stuff like search, Gmail, Maps, and Drive, but for their lesser-used properties like Groups, Reader, Images, Books, and everything else they offer via a webpage. And they should be writing those apps for everything, not just the popular stuff and not just for the popular phones.
This isn’t a “Google said ‘Don’t be evil’” thing, this is just simple business since. The harder it is for someone to get the Google experience, and the more they have to go through unofficial apps to get it, the more people start to question why they even bothered with Google at all. The more other services people use because those services are on their phone, the less they’re inclined to use Google when Google apps are available. The more resources Google pours into Android, the less it’s pouring into being ubiquitous, and the longer there’s an opening for a new upstart to gain parity with Google in the minds of other users. Google is already encouraging Windows phone users to try Bing, which only makes those services better, and most importantly, makes those users likely to change their browser searching to Bing as well. After all, Bing has their data from mobile searches, their locations when they do things on their phones, and purchasing habits from their app (and in-app) purchases.
Right now, Google’s biggest saving grace on Windows Phone is that Microsoft seems to have a corporate policy of sabotaging themselves whenever they have a chance of getting back on track. It’s only a matter of time before Microsoft screws up and do something right that makes people want to buy their stuff again, and it’s going to catch Google completely flat-footed and they’re going to start losing the data that makes them billions.
It’s time that Google truly accepts the reality that they need to be on every device, platform, and OS out there, in the most optimal manner for that device. That means web applications for people on their computers, and mobile apps for every type of phone that lets you download stuff, and no exceptions. It means not cutting people off from your services for any reason – if the experience is suboptimal, then Google needs to do what it takes to fix it or be OK losing users. It means the important thing isn’t making Android better, but advocating for the best possible experience for any using Google services, even if Google didn’t write the app themselves. It means making sure the right interface to Google is always easily available, with all the best features Google can engineer, and making sure there are no obstacles to using it. If Google isn’t interested in that sort of thing, there’s always plenty of other applications and services out there that could step in and work just well enough that I don’t feel like I need Google anymore. That would be a shame for Google, after all, they still need my usage data if they want to keep being successful.