ZDNet's Mobile News blogger, James Kendrick, outlined Google's plans to hire top mobile application development talent. However, when he explains the move in terms of back-pedaling on their long-held belief that the mobile web will ultimately reign supreme, he's missing a few key points: Chrome OS, HTML5, Apple, Google Labs, and Android fragmentation. It's also worth noting that Google is on a hiring spree; the mobile app developers make up a tiny fraction of the new Googler's the company plans to hire.
Do users love interacting with the web on 3 inch screens? No. Do specialized apps work better on small screens? Oftentimes, yes. And how about the iPhone, that silly little smartphone from some company in California that so many people seem to like? It doesn't support Flash, so the web experiences available to users before HTML5 becomes prevalent aren't exactly rich. Mobile apps, of course, bypass that issue, enabling great experiences on Flashless small screens.
Interestingly, though, the majority of data usage on mobile phones comes from actual web surfing. Mobile access to data and information remains the primary use case for these devices (and tablets, for that matter). People may be downloading billions (literally) of apps, but they still spend extraordinary amounts of time simply online with their phones.
What if the web experience could be as rich as the native app experience? A look at what Google (as well as Microsoft and Zoho, among others) has done to replicate and, in some ways, advance, productivity software presented as a web-based service shows just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rich web applications.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to use Chrome OS or access web apps from the Chrome Web Store knows that sophisticated applications are quite possible from within the browser, the best of which are indistinguishable from OS-native applications. As this technology trickles down to mobile (or, perhaps more likely, is advanced by the mobile space) and HTML5 makes web applications across platforms possible that could previously have only been achieved with Flash, users will increasingly not care whether they access functionality via a browser or a native application. Both will look great and work seamlessly.
When users enable it in Chrome (and by default in Chrome OS), newly-opened browser tabs look remarkably like the lists of icons we see on iOS and Android smartphones. One word, folks: convergence. Keep in mind that they mobile app developers for whom Google is looking are largely UX (user experience) experts. Who better to ensure that applications built to run within a browser look and feel as robust as native apps?
Certainly, though, Google's hiring of mobile app developers will mean new apps available shortly directly from Google in the Apps Marketplace. Regardless of Google's ultimate vision of a browser in every pot, so to speak, Apple loves to tout the sheer volume of apps in their own App Store. If Google can inject creative and inspiring apps into their own often-panned Marketplace, more third-party developers will follow suit.
Notice the language that Google uses in the recruiting documents: "software engineers, product managers, user-interface experts and others who have ideas for mobile apps." These new hires are going to be thought leaders and creative experts to take mobile applications (whether they run natively or in a mobile browser) to the next level and set new standards for the non-Google developers who increasingly are looking to Android as a platform of choice.
Internal employees also have access to Google Labs (as in, they're the ones who fill it up with creative, innovative ideas that can then either sink or swim with users). We have yet to see Labs mobile applications and new hires who have some creative freedoms will be required for Android to truly take on Apple's countless apps and flawless interface. We don't need any new fart apps. We need something brilliant. Remember that Gmail itself came out of Labs.
Finally, the fragmentation of the Android platform presents serious issues for developers. A strong group of internal developers can better explore, address, remediate, and mitigate the problem for Google and the developer ecosystem.
In a world where Web apps are king, the platform fragmentation will have less significance. We're not there yet, though, and Google obviously needs to address the needs of developers and it's app-related public relations and marketing issues, hiring some top-notch mobile developers is hardly a step back from their long-term strategy or Chrome OS. On the contrary, it buys the company time as the technology catches up with the vision, as well as providing Google with important opportunities to fine tune the idea of a web application.