Close-Up: Live issue - Can Google alter mobile advertising?

Google touts Android as a revolutionary step in the world of mobile marketing, Kunal Dutta writes.

Even if it wasn't deliberate, the timing could not have been better. By the time queues had formed outside London's Apple Store for the UK launch of the iPhone, Google unveiled its mobile plans. Contrary to expectation, there was no handset involved. Instead Android, a free open-source mobile software, backed by an "Open Handset Alliance" of 33 partners, including eBay, Sprint and T-Mobile, was unveiled.

Unlike the slinky new iPhone, Android needs a leap of imagination. Google hopes the technology will change people's relationship with their phone. Until now, this has been a largely binary one: users choose a network provider and handset with preloaded applications. Android will be a one-size-fits-all platform that will allow software developers to create applications, which users can pick, choose and build without charge.

And it isn't far off. The news was announced in California last week. And this week, the company gave developers a preview of Android's software development tool. It has committed to unrolling the first of the Android-capable handsets and services by the second half of 2008.

Then, of course, there's the lynchpin: the advertising. Recent news that Google was looking to build a global roster of mobile ad agencies should come as little surprise. Neither should the fact that the company is billing Android as the first mobile platform that is "complete, open and free". All of this points to a familiar Google world: a rich diversity of focused content being offered free of charge.

Yet the model will not be quite the same as online. Google maintians that it has no plans to offer its own specific advertising for Android outside of its own webpage. "It's an eco-system where content developers can build applications to suit their needs," Anthony House, a Google spokesman, says. "Developers are welcome to incorporate an ad model into the business plan, but Google has no plans to take any profit from that."

Whether or not this will remain is open to debate, but the advertising opportunities are still lucrative. "Android is addressing the questions most mobile providers have been desperate to answer: how can we profile our audience and deliver relevant content tailored to each individual?" Dominick O'Brien, the head of emerging technology at glue London, says.

Even if Google doesn't seize the chance to monetise, others will. Up until now, mobile advertising has experimented with different models, often with mixed results. These approaches include primitive text message marketing, as well as pre-video branded bulletins and browsers. Blyk, a youth mobile network, even offers users free calls and text messages funded entirely by advertising from youth brands.

But it's the capability of the handsets that might hinder the progress Android is aiming for. "Until now, we haven't had the handset capability to deliver the interactive, experiences we can online," O'Brien adds.

But before it truly ignites advertisers' interests, Google has to alter perceptions of mobile phone internet largely hindered by high charges and slow download rates. With a potential market of nearly three billion mobile users worldwide, this will need some thinking. "Before Google corners the mobile ad market, we need mass mobile internet consumption," Amanda Davie, the head of search at i-level, says. "And that's where Android comes into its own. It will reduce the cost of mobile internet access, which is the biggest barrier to mass adoption."

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DIGITAL MEDIA PLANNER - Amanda Davie, head of search, i-level

"Google recognises the huge revenue potential of 'the first screen' (so called, because there are infinitely more mobiles than there are PCs or TVs - 2.5 billion globally, compared with only 1.5 billion TVs and 820 million PCs).

"However, only one in four people have access to the internet via their mobile in the UK, and while Google can claim to own just over half of all mobile searches, the total UK market is still less than ten million mobile internet subscribers.

"Until mobile internet access is free and unlimited in the UK, Google's mobile ad revenue will be limited."

MOBILE PHONE AD CHIEF - Mike Baker, vice-president, head of ad business, Nokia

"What's significant about Google's announcement is not its near-term effect on mobile advertising, but rather the growing weight behind evolving the mobile platform.

"We have yet to realise the potential of mobile marketing. The biggest impediment is not technology platforms, but rather capable creative and media planning. It's taken about ten years for brands and their agencies to migrate from TV to the PC.

"The only effective marketing for brands is that which is embraced by the consumer. This means not only that mobile advertising must occur in useful consumer services, but also that the advertising itself must provide a useful or engaging experience."

MEDIA PLANNER - Damian Blackden, director of strategic marketing technology, Universal McCann

"Both Microsoft and Google are converging on the same lines. Microsoft wants to become more of an advertising company from a software base. Google is going heavily at mobile, but using its software as a platform for advertising. To succeed, it will need a critical mass of mobile audience, an audience profile to make it relevant, and a means by which to deliver the message.

"Android gives Google the potential to transform mobile advertising, since its scope of targeting could come through a range of applications specially tailored to match the needs of its audiences."

AGENCY DIGITAL PLANNER - Dominick O'Brien, head of emerging technology, glue London

"Mobile has always been the product of the future. As marketers, we haven't worked out how to harness it yet.

"Android is a free open-source technology that will challenge the likes of Sybian, which still charges a fee.

"This could bring down the general handset prices and contribute to a larger take-up.

"Its success will be defined not only by its accessibility, but by the speed of content and its relevance. If it can get that right, it can create larger audiences and brands that embrace it like other channels."