Free Wi-Fi? What's Google Up to, Anyway?

Google's bid to provide free Wi-Fi access across San Francisco has a lot of people wondering what the company's up to. One possible answer--location-specific searches and advertising.

October 17, 2005

5 Min Read
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While Google isn't talking specifics about the project, they do discuss their expectations about tying location to information.

"We are excited about the capability of Wi-Fi networks to provide the data that would underlie location-based services," Chris Sacca, Google's new business development point-person for this project, said in an interview.

Been There Before

Wi-Fi isn't the first attempt for Google to offer location-based information for roaming users. Google started out in the mobile phone and handheld space with their first service in 2000, and began rolling out a variety of additional features last year, noted Deep Nishar, Google's director of mobile strategies. While not focusing on road warriors, the company has introduced services that make sense for those with high-limit or unlimited SMS text messaging or WAP/data plans.

For starters, search requests can be sent via SMS to Google at GOOGL (46645), resulting in the top two matches, if any. (Yahoo's similar service is at YAHOO or 92466.)SMS is the simplest way for Google and other search companies to provide support because it's a single format, supported now almost universally and doesn't require a relationship with a specific cellular operator. Google acquired the firm Dodgeball this year, which offers social networking via SMS.

Sacca expects Dodgeball may play a role in a San Francisco network, too. "You can imagine a network like that that would enable your friends and friends of friends to find each other," he said.

Google also sees blogging as a highly useful application of SMS and MSS messaging, Nishar said.

"People like to take pictures on their phone and then they get frustrated because they don't know what to do with them," he said. Google's Blogger service supports mobile weblogging (moblogging), which has gradually become part of the toolkit for business intelligence, marketing and customer interaction.

But there are practical limits to those sorts of forays into the mobile world. Specifically, as mobile applications become more interactive and Web-like, they typically start requiring cooperation and often revenue sharing with the mobile operators. Another problem is that there are several different phone platforms, protocol versions and phone display models."For a space that has been around as long as it has been, that has the kind of penetration it has--4.7 billion mobile phones in the world today--the fragmentation is kind of staggering," Nishar said. Content providers such as Google have the responsibility to make the user experience consistent, he said.

There are hints that Google applications or even platforms might follow. Google acquired Android earlier this year, bringing Danger founder Andy Rubin and engineers familiar with creating mobile phone operating systems.

Google has sidestepped this issue for now, as have other search engine companies and specialized operators, by supporting a wide range of browsers, particularly those that use the inadequate WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) found on most phones with smaller screens, but also part of advanced handsets like Verizon's new LG VX9800.

In addition, Nishar said the company has created a separate directory of mobile-formatted content at the beta site or via an automatic redirect from, depending on the phone.

"We go out and crawl all the mobile sites that are out there--there are hundreds of millions of them 'pages'--and create a special index," he said. The company also reformats pages where possible to better work in the mobile format.Google also provides a variety of access to its free, invitation-only e-mail service Gmail, including redirecting specific incoming e-mail to a mobile phone via SMS.

Being Bearish on Google

Analyst Albert Lin at San Francisco-based American Technology Research is bearish on Google's current offerings for search and location-based information.

"The whole history and culture of Google has seen tremendous success by finding ways to circumvent the establishment," Lin said. In the mobile world, that's practically impossible because the operators run closed systems.

Gary Price, a search-engine research expert and editor at Search Engine Watch, noted that while Google has a broad array of services, they're just one of many companies in the space. Yahoo, for instance, has a broad platform of mobile services.Price believes that and other firms providing either answers to questions or deep, timely information--such as Lexis-Nexis or medical information services like the National Library of Medicine--have more impact than replicating Web results in a phone.

"Mobile lends itself to short bits of information, and I think in the area of questions and answers, that's a huge area there" to explore. For mobile users, "You want an answer; you don't want a bunch of links."

It's clear that Google's focus on mobile goes beyond any particular device or service, and Wi-Fi will help them achieve that. With dozens of cities considering municipal wireless networks, Google's San Francisco bid would let them experiment with services that they could offer to companies like EarthLink, the winner of the Philadelphia bid.

If services are done right--from the user perspective and in turning revenue from them--"they could have immense value to end users and to advertisers," Google's Sacca said. That, in turn, could feed the building of bigger Wi-Fi networks, said Sacca, since the revenue stream would be proven before the network was built.

Perhaps Google can sidestep around limitations in making applications available via cellular operators through Wi-Fi zones and citywide networks that make Google applications widely available.Google Talk, an instant messaging program in beta, includes voice over IP calling. A handset combining Wi-Fi and cellular with Google Talk built in or available to run could be the ultimate challenge to the existing mobile world while reducing calling costs for the road warrior.

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