Thursday, February 18, 2010

Google CEO unveils 'magic' apps to hostile crowd

Google woos mobile web sceptics

Google's CEO Eric Schmidt urges the mobile industry to embrace the web instead of seeing Google as the enemy.

People who don't even speak the same language will soon be able to have live conversations and Google phone cameras will translate items like foreign restaurant menus in seconds, the search giant's chief executive said today.

But Google's constant stream of innovations is puzzling analysts and frightening telco reps, who are unsure whether the company is a friend or "frenemy".

In his keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said the company had shifted its focus from desktops to mobiles.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt speaks at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt speaks at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Photo: Reuters

"Now our programmers are doing work on mobile first, and that is in fact a change ... [our] top programmers want to work on those [mobile] apps," he said.

Mobiles become 'your alter ego'

Schmidt said the super-fast built-in chips in modern phones and the ability to share number crunching with powerful servers in the online "cloud" meant "the phone is no longer a phone, it's your alter ego ... it's fundamental to everything that you do".

He noted how Google phones could already perform voice recognition and translate spoken phrases into different languages, "so why can't I just talk on the phone to someone who doesn't speak my language?"

"It's coming," he said, before remarking on other powerful mobile apps such as one that can diagnose a user's cough via the phone's built-in microphone.

Google demonstrated the recently launched Google Goggles app, which lets mobile users take a photo of a building, landmark or other object and then perform a search on it through Google.

He said the company would soon extend this by offering "optical character recognition paired with real-time translation". As an example, Google performed a scenario whereby the user can take a photo of an item on a German restaurant menu and have the text translated within seconds.

"It's like magic - all of a sudden there are things that you can do that it never even occurred to you would be possible," Schmidt said.

He said our mobile phones now know who we are, where we are and could recognise patterns in our behaviour, so an "interesting and maybe worrisome" next step was "applications that not only know where I am but predict where I'm going".

In a dig at Apple, Schmidt unveiled Adobe Flash support for Google's Android platform by demonstrating videos on The New York Times website. Apple was forced to modify its advertisements for the iPad that included the website following revelations that the ads showed Flash content, which isn't supported by the iPad.

Schmidt predicted that in three years, if not sooner, smartphones would pass global PC sales - "a remarkable achievement".

"Mobile web adoption is proceeding at eight times faster than the equivalent point 10 years ago for the desktop," said Schmidt.

"Half the new internet connections are for mobile devices. From a Google perspective, there are more Google searches on mobile than on desktop in emerging countries like Indonesia."

Google reducing telcos to 'dump pipes'

During a question and answer session following the keynote, Schmidt was forced to defend Google against claims by telcos that the company was forcing them to become "dumb pipes" providing little more than bandwidth for Google's appilcations.

It was claimed Google, with its network-intensive applications like YouTube, benefited from operators' networks without contributing anything to building the network infrastructure.

At the same time, Google was increasingly competing with the telcos by releasing apps such as Google Voice, which allows users to bypass the networks to make voice calls. It also sells its Nexus One phone directly to consumers online, bypassing the mobile operators.

The company also announced recently that it was building an experimental fibre-to-the-home network in parts of the US that could potentially offer a blistering 1Gbps bandwidth.

By comparison, the upcoming National Broadband Network is predicted to offer about 100Mbps.

But in an invite-only round-table discussion after the event, Schmidt said Google was purely experimenting in an effort to see what was required to bring networks up to 1Gbps, which could pave the way for more exciting applications and convince telcos to upgrade their networks.

Schmidt said definitively that Google did not intend to compete with the telcos or to build infrastructure. He did not believe Google was a threat to the telcos and in fact said the opposite was true.

"We believe that a lot of the growth that is occurring in the operators is because of the growth of sophisticated applications," Schmidt said.

"Operators want Google to build apps that will drive people to use [their] networks."

Asher Moses travelled to Barcelona as a guest of Samsung.

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