Google should concentrate on mobile-social revolution

16 Aug 2010

Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy’s take on the week that was. With a mobile computing revolution underway, Google doesn’t need to emulate Facebook. It can enhance social instead

There are a number of ways to gauge consumer appetite for technology outside of expensive market research reports. The usual route is to read the technology press, Twitter and various blogs to see what people are crowing about. Usually everybody’s excited about the same thing, be it an iPhone or an Android phone.

Another way, which I prefer and consider more direct, is just to talk to ordinary people who aren’t bloggers, who aren’t Apple fanbois, who have a genuine interest in stuff and who care about tangibles like call credit and bang for buck. It is often refreshing to see just how much they know about things like Android or the iPhone. Just ask them, they are your parents, your brothers and sisters or just people you might have just met in a pub or at a party. Just ask.

You would often be surprised because guess what – they aren’t all saying the same things – and have an innate, instinctive and reasonable position on what they are willing to pay for.

Another method is just to look at people’s behaviours in technology stores, what are they hovering around the most and what are they likely to walk away with. On a whimsy just before closing time I called into the nearest PC World store in Dublin and as I began a solitary walk around the ranks of netbooks, notebooks and touchscreen desktops, I noticed that the only place that the only other people in the store – teenagers of around 13 or 14 – were congregated around was the iPad desk in the Apple section.

I walked away with the distinct – powerful – impression that if these tablet computers were cheaper they would be the powerful computing platform that will dominate the decade ahead. They would be the digital schoolbags of tomorrow, the media consumption tools that could save traditional media, the game machines to connect a planet, the whirring spinning information portals that HG Wells could only imagine. Mobility and affordability and the choice between a small screen and a big screen will surely bring computing to the masses. Personally I would never consider ditching a PC as a work tool, people will still need powerful computing at their finger tips to get real work done, but there’s a clear indication to me that tablet computing is only in its nascence.

But Apple can’t have it all

While Apple have truly created something magical, they can’t have it to themselves. Samsung will soon release an Android-based tablet and Dell’s Streak is on the way too. If more and more manufacturers could produce affordable tablet computing devices then the information revolution can be embraced by all and in many ways, from robust devices on the building site to a digital schoolbag for every kid in the world. Analyst iSuppli recently had to revise its forecast on the iPad from 7m units this year to 12.9m, rising to 36.5 million in 2011 and 50.4 million in 2012.

When I look at the success of Android – unit sales up 886pc in the year according to Canalys and a 17.2pc global marketshare of smartphones according to Gartner – the ubiquity of intelligent computing devices in our hands with GPS and a wealth of software to do a myriad of things is something the world will soon embrace.

In the past week Oracle launched a devastating lawsuit against Google over patents and the use of Java in Android devices. This to me seems more like a battle of egos between Oracle’s Larry Ellison who only bought Sun Microsystems this year and Google’s Eric Schmidt who espoused the open computing model led by Sun and enshrined it at Google.

The next wave

I have no doubt that Google will overcome this impasse. The thing that bothers me is all this talk of Google trying to take on Facebook in the social media space. Having cancelled Google Wave – essentially Google’s attempt to create a new work tool and do to the 21st century what email did in the 20th – I think Google should be very careful here.

Over the weekend Niall Harbison of social media firm Simply Zesty detailed Google’s various acquisitions including its acquisitions of Slide and Gowalla and its investment in Zynga. This morning Google officially acquired social media currency player Jambool. All very exciting.

However, what Google needs to think about is what it has achieved with Android and push its efforts in creating social tools for the mobile computing world and consolidate and grow. Trying to take on an established social networking hub with 500m users by doing the same thing would be madness.

Google are a great believer in trying something, discarding it if it doesn’t work and starting again. I’m a great believer in observation. I observe that there’s a massive opportunity to truly democratise computing across the world. I observe the success of Android and Apple’s iPad. I don’t believe Google needs to reinvent the wheel.

The best indicator I got of where the search giant’s strategic direction lies was the assertion earlier this year by Google Europe boss John Herlihy that in three years’ time desktop computing will be irrelevant. I don’t entirely agree with this prognosis, I partially agree.

We are in an age of true marvel, true invention and sheer innovation. Whatever it does, the mobile computing revolution is underway and if Google tries to do something with social media it should enhance and expand this revolution, not merely emulate it in the old desktop world.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years