Google has been playing catch-up to Apple in the mobile world for several years, but it's starting to carve out its own niche by emphasizing its strength on the Web.
The Android Market Web Store was the most interesting thing to emerge from yesterday's event at Google headquarters, and it's one that Apple can't easily duplicate overnight. It's also in keeping with Google's philosophy of pushing Web development over native software development when possible, a strategy that isn't always practical on smartphones but is starting to make more sense as computing power grows in tablets.
Most importantly for Google, it gives Android users a cleaner, simpler, and more user-friendly option for buying apps than the much-maligned Android Market. It should also appeal to developers, who will have many more options at their fingertips for promoting their apps on the store and a better chance of being found within the sea of applications.
The advantages of the Android Market Web Store are simple: Android users can browse app selections just like any other Web site from any Web-connected device, rather than dealing with the small, cluttered, and awkward Android Market interface on their phones. A purchased app is linked with a Google Account rather than a device, so it can be automatically pushed to any Android devices registered to that account at the time of purchase.
And Google has also come up with something that hits Apple where it hurts: Web services. For all its skill in designing mobile hardware and software, Apple hasn't been able to come up with all that many services that tie everything together over the Web. (Find My iPhone is a notable exception, but that requires a $99 annual subscription to MobileMe. UPDATED 4:50 p.m. As pointed out in the comments, iPhone 4 users with iOS 4.2 installed can get this for free.)
Apple's iTunes is the hub for its mobile strategy, and even the most diehard Apple fan would admit that desktop application is getting a bit long in the tooth. iTunes has given Apple an centralized distribution and payment-processing system that's arguably as responsible for the growth of iOS as anything, but it's resource-intensive and linked to a single computer: you can manage and purchase apps on the iPhone or iPad, of course, but if you want to back them up, you have to physically connect the device to a computer.
Google has long sought to eliminate that link with its Android strategy, pitching its Web-based services as a selling point for those concerned about app backup and contact management. However, it didn't really have a credible alternative to the ease-of-use that accompanies app shopping on a bigger screen, not to mention the rather poor experience in the native Android Market. Now it does.
Eric Chu, mobile platforms product manager for Google, said that the Web Store won't replace the native Android Market on phones and tablets as yet. He said Google will continue to make improvements to the native store because that's still probably the best experience on phones.
But Google's quest in this world is to one day replace software developed for specific machines with software developed on and for the Web. Mobile devices lag behind their desktop counterparts when it comes to supporting this kind of strategy (and even desktops aren't all the way there) but as standards get sorted out and mobile browsers become more powerful, the conditions needed to allow that to happen will start to come together.
This is also a powerful differentiator for Google and its partners. By emphasizing Android's hooks into Google's broader array of Web services, Google gives its partners a selling point that others can't match without a great deal of investment in skills that aren't necessarily complementary to those of mobile operating system developers and industrial designers.
It's not exactly a game changer, but it's a nice example of how the many companies trying to live up to the high bar set by Apple with iOS can score points by knowing their strengths and focusing on sore points in the iPhone and iPad experience.
Now if Google can address some of the sore points in the Android experience--such as the slow pace of operating system updates actually reaching phones, for one--it might start setting the pace on its own.