Strange Bedfellows in Japan: Google, Apple and Yahoo

Posted by: Kenji Hall on June 10, 2008

Much has been said about Apple and Google’s awkward iPhone alliance. (On June 3, the Silicon Alley Insider touched on this very theme.) With Google’s move to customize its array of software applications for Apple’s iPhone users, the two have become both rivals and collaborators—rivals because the iPhone will be up against cellphones and mobile devices that run on the Google-led Android software, collaborators because Google software developers are among the most enthusiastic at thinking of cool new features to add to the iPhone.

In Japan you’ll have to toss in one more variable: Yahoo. Softbank’s announcement last week that it will offer the iPhone in Japan means that the company that owns Yahoo Japan will now promote a mobile device with software featuring Gmail, Google’s free email service. Gmail is a direct competitor to Yahoo Japan’s own email service. So are its messaging and news site as well as a slew of other online services where Google and Yahoo go head-to-head.

And when Android-run cellphones are released sometime in the second half of this year, Softbank’s constellation of seemingly conflicting interests will expand. Are you confused yet?

One way of sorting this out would be to ask Softbank’s CEO and founder Masayoshi Son. He’s a tough-minded entrepreneur. He might try to preserve Yahoo Japan’s lead as the country’s most popular Web site by making every iPhone user go through Yahoo first to reach the Net. But that would be unwise. (Son-san, are you listening?) It could also anger Apple’s Steve Jobs, of whom Son is said to be a big admirer. One of the iPhone’s charms is that it offers a direct window to the Net, unlike most carriers’ handsets. Setting Yahoo Japan as the iPhone’s default first stop on the Net would show that Softbank hasn’t given up its operator-knows-best model and could scare away some would-be iPhone buyers who don’t want someone limiting their wireless options.

It would also put off the inevitable—the convergence of the fixed and mobile Internet. The free-for-all Web services and software downloads that we’re used to when accessing the Net from a PC is what many tech-industry execs expect the wireless world to look like in a couple of years, and mobile operators--in Japan, NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and Softbank--will likely have no choice but to embrace the trend. (KDDI and DoCoMo have. They’re members of the Google-led Open Handset Alliance that’s developing Android.) “There will be some [operators and others with vested interests] that go with open source and some that don’t,” Andy Rubin, Google’s director of mobile platforms told me at Google Developers Day in Yokohama, west of Tokyo, on June 10. “The ones that do will have all the innovation. The ones that don’t will be dinosaurs.”

New ideas that have been on the backburner for years could suddenly be thrust to the fore by a determined individual. One example: making a mobile device remotely dim the lights or flick off the TV at home. This is one of the many projects the Digital Living Network Alliance has been working on with manufacturers of PCs, consumer electronics, mobile devices and other home gadgetry for years. So far there are few products that let you access a home network while on the go. Partly, that's because most people probably don't see the value in it, and won't pay for it. “There’s going to be some wacky guy who wants to control his TV with his cell phone and it’s probably not going to be the massmarket, it’s going to be a smaller set of people,” says Rubin. But that’s where Android comes in. “It enables the guy who wants to do his thing that the mass market hasn’t been addressing.”

As for the collabo-rivalry between Android mobile phones and the iPhone, Rubin doesn’t think much of it. He calls Apple and Google’s relationship “very close.” “The purpose of Android is very different from the purpose of the iPhone,” he explains. “The iPhone is a great product...But what we felt would bring innovation--Internet-style innovation--to the cellphone is an open platform. And that’s what Android is.” Apple appears to be following Google’s lead on this by creating its own iPhone App Store (in 62 countries) for independent software developers to offer their own ideas directly to iPhone users. The bottom line: Consumers win by getting more choice.

On a different note
With the start of Google Developers Day in Yokohama, Google bigwigs were in town to talk about everything from search to Android. On June 9, Marissa Mayer explained one way that Google hopes to make more of the world’s information available to everyone: split-second translation. Think of the possibilities. In Qatar, a man enters a keyword in Arabic to start a Net search. Immediately, he has a limited number of Web sites to choose from, says Mayer. “Only 1% of the Web exists in Arabic.” But Google is experimenting with a service that will translate that same man’s query from Arabic into, say, English and return to him a list of relevant sites with text that’s also have been translated for him to read. “In the future you should be able to search all languages and translate them back into your native language,” says Mayer. Mind-boggling stuff—and more pages for Google to slap ads.

One nifty feature Google has recently introduced in Japan that’s a favorite of mine: Google Keyword Ranking (kyuujoushou waado). Here’s how it works. Google’s machines keep track of the millions of keyword searches they are processing and find the most popular. Then the top keywords are ranked, and every 20 minutes a new list is posted. Googlers got the idea after watching searches spike during the prime-time TV hours around 8 in the evening. “We had this vague notion that there must be some link between TV and cellphones and thought about trying to do something about it,” says Hiroshi Kuraoka, search product manager at Google Japan. A search late yesterday revealed that seven of the top 10 searches were about the stabbing of shoppers in Akihabara, a Tokyo district known for its abundance of electronics and anime shops. “It’s not just about TV and cellphones. We were also curious about what people were searching for at any given moment," says Kuraoka. "It’s one way of tracking social trends.”

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies.

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