Technology conferences are famous for souvenirs like T-shirts and mouse pads designed to get the attention of attendees.
At a recent Google conference to drum up support for its mobile phone software platform, the company made sure the developers they'd invited would remember the event. Or at least remember the unassuming guy in a T-shirt handing out free Google Android cell phones.
“Congratulations, here's your phone," he said to surprised recipients.
The guy in the T-shirt was Google CEO Sergey Brin, one of the wealthiest and most powerful business leaders in the world. So why would Brin — one of the two billionaire co-founders of Google — bother showing up at some mobile phone conference? Because for Google, the stakes couldn't be higher.
Mobile phone use is skyrocketing — more than four billion worldwide, with a billion sold in 2008 alone. Brin wants to make sure that Android — Google's operating system for mobile phones — gets a big piece of that market.
"If you can't look at the search results on your cell phone reasonably because the browser is not capable enough, or the application sophistication is not good enough, then we can't really deliver you that information for when you're using your phone,” he said. “But Android has allowed us to bridge that gap."
Brin has tapped Google’s VP of Engineering and Mobile Applications, Vic Gundotra, to make sure that, as the world goes mobile, Google goes with it.
"We are seeing a very fundamental shift where increasingly — particularly among the young demographic and in Asian countries — the primary access to the Internet is not through the PC, but through mobile devices," he said.
Google first put its Android software in phones in 2008. Other manufacturers like Motorola, Samsung and Dell – are now jumping on the android bandwagon. But it will still be a struggle for Google’s Android to challenge Apple — the 800-pound gorilla of mobile phones.
Apple's iPhone — with its vast market of software applications, or apps — has huge momentum in the world of so-called smart phones, which act more like hand-held computers and Web browsers than simple cell phones.
"In some respects, we're past the era of the PC and into the era of extrasensory computing,” said Gundotra. “These mobile phones have eyes. They've got a camera. They've got ears. Every one of them has a microphone. They've got skin. You can touch them. And they're increasingly augmenting our own senses."
So far, there are roughly 10,000 apps available for Google Android — which sounds pretty impressive until you consider that the apple iPhone has more than 100,000. To beef up Google's offerings, Gundotra has to convince software developers and the makers of smart phones that the smart money is on Android.
At the developers’ conference, Gundotra worked the crowd with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. Google needs private developers like these. But it's also developing android programs on its own — in house.
Hartmut Neven is a technical lead manager at Google, whose team is racing to launch another ambitious new technology. They're trying to tie the cameras in smart phones to the immense power of Google's search engine — using something called “visual search.”
"Imagine you're a tourist and you arrive at this place and you want to know more about it,” said Neven on a visit to the Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles the show off the technology. “All you will have to do is take a picture of the sign. We send the information up to the server and we recognize this as the Santa Monica pier. The idea is you see something that interests you, you whip out your camera phone, take a picture of the object of interest, and this will trigger a Google search."
Google's competitors would be impressed — if they knew about it. When CNBC visited, the visual search product — which the company has named Google Goggles — was still secret. But Google agreed to pull back the curtain and let CNBC’s cameras watch the process.
It wasn't always pretty. As deadlines loomed, colleagues in other Google offices were scheduled to test it the very next day. Twenty-four hours later, a group of Google engineers in New York — who had never seen Google visual search — finally give it a try.
Back in California, the visual search team anxiously watched by video link as first time users tested the product. After some initial reviews were less than enthusiastic, Google engineers decided the new technology just wasn’t ready for prime time. So team members were dispatched to fix any remaining problems.
The last critical hurdle is an internal product review called "dog-fooding."
"Dog-fooding really comes from the phrase ‘to eat your own dog food,’” explained Google product manager Shailesh Nalawadi. ”Which at Google means that every product we get ready to release to our end users is tested extensively within Google by all of the employees at Google."
That means the visual search team's baby will soon be in the hands of 20,000 critics gleefully trying to tear it apart.
"Not surprisingly, Googlers are very passionate about the products that we put out,” said Nalawadi. “And we get a ton of feedback, which we incorporate into the product before we release it to the end users."
Google is used to leading the field — but not in mobile phones. So visual search — and apps like it — are critical if Google is going to challenge Apple and claim more of those tiny screens in billions of hands around the globe.