Google CEO Eric Schmidt put mobile devices squarely at the center of the computing universe in his first keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in an address that follows up mobile announcements including Apple's iPad and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series.
In his address late Tuesday, Schmidt touted the growth and importance of mobile devices in fairly glorious terms, and urged application developers inside and outside of Google to “work on mobile first,” ahead of desktop computers.
Some of his observations apparently seemed obvious to industry insiders in the audience, whom Schmidt had to chide when they did not loudly applaud Google's latest search-by-voice and search-by-image applications.
Schmidt was right, in a way. Perhaps mobile phone industry insiders are jaded about how important smartphones and other small mobile devices have become since they are so powerful, personal and portable.
Schmidt reminded listeners of two Haiti earthquake victims, one who used a mobile phone to help rescuers locate her and a man who used an iPhone app to diagnose his wounds.
However, for Google and other companies, the value of mobile phones is their sheer rate of adoption and their numbers in the hands of users. Schmidt noted that sales of smartphones are growing at 30% year-over-year, and will soon surpass global PC sales.
He argued that mobile Web adoption is growing eight times faster annually than Web adoption did 10 years ago for the desktop. Half the Internet connections are made by mobile devices, he said, noting that more Google searches are done on mobile devices than on desktops in emerging countries.
Schmidt took some tough, even angry, questions from his audience, who seemed to include network operators concerned that Google is trying to write smart applications that will render networks nothing more than “dumb pipes” that network operators can't make money on.
But Schmidt praised the value of good networks that manage applications appropriately, keeping their quality of service high. He said the future of mobile devices, including the Google-backed Android OS, will require a merging of three things: powerful computing, efficient network connectivity and use of cloud servers for performing an array of sophisticated tasks that can't be done on the phone alone, such as voice and visual searches.
Android alone has catapulted Google into the center of the mobile phone business, with 26 devices on the market made with the help of 65 partners in 48 countries and in 19 languages, Schmidt said. He estimated 60,000 Android phones are shipping per day, double that of last quarter. “We hope that growth rate continues a long time,” Schmidt said.
“The basic message here, is that there's a confluence of three factors — computing, connectivity and cloud,” Schmidt said. “The phone is no longer the phone, it's your alter ego. It's the extension of everything we are. It doesn't think as well as we do, but it has a better memory.”
Appealing to his audience, Schmidt added, “this is the time for us, now is the time for us to get behind this, we understand that the new rule is mobile first.”
In answers to questions, Schmidt said he also felt that personal mobile video conferencing “is the next interesting app” that will require powerful networks such as LTE and WiMax, both of which Google supports.
He also seemed to offer a bow to network operators who worry about ways to prevent a small group of users from sapping up all the available data. “We want to make sure the network is adaptive, as some people are consuming massive amounts of data,” he said. “Realistically, they will be forced into tiered pricing.”
Regarding net neutrality, Schmidt also said he wants two applications that do similar things, such as video streaming, to have the ability to run on all networks unless one of the applications is using too much bandwidth. “We believe it's important for operators to deal with too much capacity [being taken],” he said.
Given the range of questions and issues Schmidt addressed, including his stance on distracted driving laws (“people should not be looking at mobile phones while driving,” was all he said) and the number of mobile OS's that will be around in 10 years (“the most likely scenario is that it grows very large and winnows down,” he said), it was obvious that Schmidt has taken on the mantle as a new king in mobile, whether or not others agree he should.
The timing seems right for Schmidt's ascendancy to that mobile throne, but some observers did criticize his keynote for pushing too much on the big picture, even as they acknowledged the prominence of the mobile space, even recently, with Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 Series announcement on Monday, and the announcement of the iPad in January.
“I think it's interesting for Schmidt to say, 'mobile first,' but another way to think about that is that if everything and everyone is connected wirelessly, there's not enough spectrum to support that,” Will Stofega, an analyst at IDC who is attending MWC, told Computerworld.
“A lot more build-out of wireless will be needed. Everyone loves to be mobile, but is there the technology to support it? LTE doesn't help us in terms of capacity; it just sort of speeds things up. We need a re-arranging and rationalizing of how spectrum is used,” he said.
“My response [to Schmidt] is that there's never enough mobile in our lifetime to support what you can theoretically get on fiber to the home,” Stofega said. “That's just not going to happen. We need a clearing of the air in terms of what these mobile technologies actually deliver, not just theoretical numbers.”