Why Google Sees Cellphones as the 'Ultimate Ad Vehicle'

As Search Giant Preps New OS, Sumit Agarwal Explains How It's Making Mobile More Like the PC

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To say that Google sees potential in mobile might be one of the year's bigger understatements. As CEO Eric Schmidt told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, mobile is "the re-creation of the internet." And, he said, "it will happen this year."
Google Mobile Product Manager Sumit Agarwal
Google Mobile Product Manager Sumit Agarwal

That kind of bullishness is what's leading Google to launch its own mobile operating system, Android. The first devices running on it will be out this fall. The idea is that an open, elegant operating system will entice developers to create all sorts of useful mobile tools, much like the Windows and Mac operating systems have done on the personal computer. That will enable faster, easier-to-use devices, giving more people access to the world's information, which, by the way, Google conveniently organizes.

In a conversation with Advertising Age, Google Mobile Product Manager Sumit Agarwal discussed why mobile is the perfect cloud-computing complement, how the phone is the advertising vehicle we go to bed with and why mobile is essentially a survival tactic for Google.

Advertising Age: How would you describe the mobile ecosystem up until now?

Sumit Agarwal: The ecosystem prior to the past few years has been relatively stable. There are the carriers with bandwidth and towers, handset OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] building hardware, and the much smaller group of software manufacturers, which are writing browsers and SMS stacks and selling those to carriers and handset makers. And you've had consumers getting service, hardware and software bundled together.

Ad Age: But that's all changing.

Mr. Agarwal: We're seeing in mobile what we saw in the PC industry. ... That notion of a bundle of service, software and hardware is slowly becoming unbundled.

Ad Age: You've launched Android. Explain the philosophy behind developing a new mobile operating system.

Mr. Agarwal: We need an open, high-quality software platform that's available to everybody to spur the next level of innovation. The situation on the PC side is often viewed as not ideal because there's one large company playing there, but the reality is it's an open platform and ... at [the] end of [the] day it's not that hard for developers to bring their great ideas and passion to end users. That's not the case in mobile, and the underlying philosophy in Android is to provide that. It's to promote consumer choice and access.

Ad Age: The iPhone has taken a more open approach as well, hasn't it?

Mr. Agarwal: We're not the only ones to have this idea, to envision a world with a more PC-like experience on the mobile device, with a greater array of service and software. Carriers have seen it, handset OEMs, the Nokias and Motorolas of the world, Apple and Google have seen it.

Apple comes at it from the hardware perspective. They've built an end-to-end way to let developers come up with ideas, write code and give that to users. Google is coming at it from a software service approach. It doesn't make it better or worse; it's just a different approach. ... We'll make that software available to everybody, so the HTCs or the Nokias of the world, whoever wants to use our software, can build hardware around it and deliver whatever flavor model they choose. It's like the iPhone App Store in a certain way but also different because it's controlled by many different parties.

Ad Age: What is Google's stake in all of this? What do you gain with a mobile operating system?

Mr. Agarwal: We take the long view, so sometimes it's hard to see our stake. Fundamentally, it's going to put a much higher-quality experience in the hands of consumers. The iPhone or some of the new BlackBerry devices coming down the pike -- these are beautiful devices. We want it to be much easier for many companies to build beautiful devices with great software that knows how to get onto the internet and pull services out of the cloud and enable this wonderful, always-on experience that's much more powerful than what people have grown used to.

Google's interest is in getting people to use the net more. We want people to have access to our services. We want the world to have access to the world's information. There are 3 billion mobile phones out there, far more than the number of PCs. ... We view it not as a "nice to have" but as a survival imperative to provide our services to users via whatever device they want.

Ad Age: You mentioned "the cloud." What's the relationship between cloud computing and mobile?

Mr. Agarwal: Cloud computing is nothing more than the same 20-year cycle we've seen in the PC industry since the first room-size computer. We're going back to the 1970s model of terminals. ... You're going to get information in and out of the cloud, which is what terminals used to do with a mainframe, but now you're going to get far more powerful processing on a global basis. Mobile is a perfect example of cloud computing's promise coming to fruition. It's allowing a huge number of untethered devices of all different standards to access infinitely more computing power than they could ever carry on their own, via the cloud.

So I could go perform a powerful, complex operation and ask for tremendous computing resources, all by issuing a few commands and asking the results of those calculations to come down to a mobile device. I could access a piece of information on my PC, have it sent to you while being away from my desk, view high-bandwidth imagery or videos, view pictures of the Beijing Olympics in real time. The cloud enables any device to have global internet as its back end.

Ad Age: What will foster advertising?

Mr. Agarwal: The phone is the ultimate ad vehicle. It's the first one ever in the history of the planet that people go to bed with. It's ubiquitous across the world, across demographics, across age groups. People are giving these things to ever-younger children for safety and communication.

We have to be very respectful of privacy and give users lots of control, but it can know where you've been, where you've lingered, what store you stopped in, what car dealership you visited. It goes beyond any traditional advertising and allows it to move from intrusive to a delightful, value-added experience.

This all sounds great, but we've been hearing it's going to be the "year of mobile" for a long time. What makes you confident it's really here now?

I think 2007 will be viewed as a transitional year; 2008 will be the first year in which data, metrics, dollars and users caught up. In 2009, we'll have entered that era of mobile. Whether it's for educational purposes, people learning languages, whether it's for communication or social networking, whether it's for commerce and information seeking, it's becoming completely embedded in fabric of everyone's daily life -- and not just as a one-to-one voice-communication tool.
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