Can Google untangle the wireless Web?

May 21, 2007, 9:17 AM UTC

The wireless Web still isn’t a decent experience yet. In fact, the experience reminds me of Web surfing in the mid-‘90s. So when I hear rumors that Google (GOOG) is thinking about launching a mobile service in the U.K., it gives me hope.

For nearly three months, I’ve been living the gadget-lover’s wireless dream: I’ve had unlimited wireless access from my Mac laptop, and unlimited voice and data on my Treo cell phone, thanks to a Sprint (S) deal in San Francisco that offers the whole package for $149 per month. (I pay the bill myself, though it helps that I get a 25 percent discount as an employee of Time Warner; Sprint last week expanded the deal to the Twin Cities, Philadelphia and Tampa.)

Problem is, there’s not a lot of great stuff to do on today’s wireless Web. I mostly check Gmail, read the New York Times (NYT) and Washington Post (WPO), use mobile Google Maps for locations and directions, and perform the occasional Google search. Even though I’m using Sprint’s relatively speedy network that’s up to EVDO Rev. A, most tasks are cumbersome.

I have the best experiences with sites that are specifically tailored for the phone’s interface, or with little Internet-capable programs that aren’t really Web pages at all; my favorite is Google’s brilliant Java-based mobile Maps program, which offers satellite views and even shows highway traffic trouble spots. In fact, of all the services I’ve tried on my phone, Google’s are the most intuitive. That’s why I feel that if any company’s going to lead the way to a usable wireless Web, it will be Google.

Which brings us back to the rumor about Google launching a mobile service. Personally, I doubt a separate Google service would be necessary; it might even harm Google’s ability to broadly influence the wireless Web by making carriers feel like it’s a competitor. What Google should really do is strike partnerships with carriers to have its services pre-loaded on phones. The best combination would be Search (with an emphasis on people and businesses), Maps, Gmail and Weather. If Google manages to strike deals with a few big carriers and get a few million people hooked on its services, it can start to exercise broader influence over how the mobile Web will work.