Google see rise in mobile web use

March 19, 2008, 4:00 PM UTC

By Michal Lev-Ram

Long before it unveiled its Android operating platform, Google had its eye on the mobile market, an industry that reaches an estimated three billion people worldwide. The company’s main strategy? Pushing search, maps and e-mail onto cell phones in the hope of becoming the leading source of information — and ads — on the tiny screen.

Now Google (GOOG) says its efforts to make mobile services faster and easier to use are paying off. On Wednesday the company released new numbers showing mobile Internet activity on select devices recently surged, following its release of a software “shortcut” that reduces the time it takes to conduct a search on a cell phone.

“We’ve long known that fast is better than slow,” says Matt Waddell, project manager for Google’s mobile division. “But when it comes to mobile fast is much better than slow.”

Google says users of its recently released shortcut — a small piece of downloadable software that installs a search box directly on a cell phone’s home screen — conduct 20% more mobile Web searches than previous users. The shortcut allows people to type a keyword right on their phone’s home screen to initiate a query, rather than having to first find and open their mobile browser and type in the URL of their preferred search engine.

The shortcut was made available to BlackBerry and Symbian devices in recent months, but Google says it will also work on Windows Mobile phones like Motorola’s (MOT) Q and the Touch by HTC starting Wednesday. The company also credits “time-saving fixes” for a recent uptake in Gmail use on the Apple (AAPL) iPhone.

According to research firm M:Metrics, the iPhone, which offers several of Google’s mobile services, is the most popular device for accessing news and information on the go. Nearly 50% of iPhone users accessed a social networking site in January, about twelve times the market average. And about 31% watched online TV on their device.

“This data indicates that the iPhone’s widgets [small applications accessible from the phone’s home screen] are an effective means to drive mobile content consumption,” Mark Donovan, senior analyst at M:Metrics said in a statement. “Beyond a doubt, this device is compelling consumers to interact with the mobile Web, delivering off-the-charts usage from everything to text messaging to mobile video.”

But M:Metrics also found that iPhone users are more likely to earn more than $100,000 than the average mobile subscriber. That means that, despite Google and Apple’s efforts to make the mobile Web simpler and faster to use, it will likely take a long time for it to reach mass appeal with average consumers — those who earn far less than $100,000 a year. According to a recent Jupiter Research report, 25% of U.S. cell phone owners currently browse the Internet from their devices, while just 16% say they do so frequently.