What makes him powerful: Sometime over the last ten years, Google evolved from a brand into a verb, becoming synonymous with the web search protocols it pioneered: Consumers no longer seek information online, they "Google it." Given that mobile search is itself synonymous with mobile advertising revenues, considered by many pundits to be the true pot of gold at the end of the wireless rainbow, Google's position as the web's premier search services provider would alone be enough to vault its CEO Eric Schmidt into any discussion of the mobile industry's most powerful figures. During a recent appearance on CNBC's Mad Money, Schmidt even predicted that mobile ad revenues will eventually outstrip traditional web advertising, anticipating a future that continues to draw closer thanks to increasing smartphone adoption and more efficient mobile Internet user interfaces.
But over the past 18 months, Schmidt has transformed Google into a mobile juggernaut whose reach and influence extends far beyond web-based services, in the process turning upside-down a wireless industry ecosystem over which carriers long enjoyed complete control. It all started last summer, when Google emerged as a dark-horse candidate in the FCC's planned wireless spectrum auction for the much-coveted 700MHz C-block--prior to the auction, Google lobbied hard for open access to the spectrum, with the FCC agreeing it would attach certain open requirements if the bidding exceed a $4.6 billion reserve. Verizon Wireless eventually won the C-block for $4.74 billion, which it turned out was Google's objective all along: The firm admitted this spring that its sole rationale for entering the auction was to drive up bidding to guarantee its desired open applications and open handsets license conditions were met.
By the time Google finally 'fessed up on its spectrum strategy, Schmidt's true master plan was already in motion: In November 2007, Google introduced Android, a Linux-based open software platform for mobile devices, concurrently teaming with operators, manufacturers and chipmakers to form the Open Handset Alliance, an industry group with the stated goal of "fostering innovation on mobile devices and giving consumers a far better user experience than much of what is available on today's mobile platforms." A subsequent Android Developer Challenge competition generated significant interest and excitement within the independent mobile software community, and later this month T-Mobile USA will launch the HTC-produced G1, the first commercial handset powered by the Android operating system. The device will retail for $179, $20 below rival Apple's pacesetting iPhone 3G, with applications available for download via the Android Market virtual storefront.
While details continue to emerge on Android, Google has promised the OS will integrate its signature search tools as a platform-wide feature. Expect future iterations of the software to include a mobile-optimized version of Chrome, the new Google-developed web browser introduced in early September--within 24 hours of Chrome's release, Google claimed 1 percent of the global browser market, according to Internet traffic analysis firm StatCounter. While some critics have argued Android exists solely to serve Google's mobile advertising ambitions, partners have said there are no new ad formats on Android handsets, nor will users encounter banner ads on every screen. In the meantime, Google isn't resting on its laurels--throwing its weight behind the campaign to secure public access to unlicensed white-space spectrum for broadband wireless services. It's clear Schmidt's assault on the wireless hierarchy is far from over.