Despite winning the mobile platform battle against Apple, Google may have ultimately lost the war by focusing on the wrong battle. While Google dominates mobile with Android, its $50 billion advertising business is in serious jeopardy as content becomes app-ified. By focusing on a platform for native apps, while essentially ignoring HTML5, Google may have helped to prop up a market that is somewhat immune to Google’s search technology.

The Web Plays Second Fiddle To Native Apps

I use Google constantly on my phone, looking up answers to questions, translations, dictionary definitions and more. But I’m the exception to the rule, a rule that says people spend far more time with mobile apps than the mobile Internet. As recent Nielsen data shows, we spend the vast majority of our time with apps, not the mobile web, when using our devices:

Given Google’s dominance of the mobile operating system market, it’s easy to forget that  Google sits atop a $50 billion advertising business that depends upon its ability to index content and advertise against that content. In a mobile world that is more fixated on apps than the web, however, Google has a problem, as The Wall Street Journal’s Rolfe Winkler highlights:

What’s a search giant to do?

Deep Links To The Rescue

Google has taken a few different tactics to address the mobile app problem, among them “deep links” into apps, whereby a developer makes the content within her app discoverable to Google. Winkler notes:

Google in the fall launched an initiative to better see—and direct—what smartphone and tablet users do on their devices. The effort seeks to mimic what Google built on the Web, with an index of the content inside mobile apps and links pointing to that content featured in Google’s search results on smartphones.

Such “deep links” into apps could prove to be an acceptable way to index all of the content currently buried from Google’s view inside apps. But given that Google must strike deals individually with each app owner, rather than proactively scouring the web for content, Google has set itself an incredibly difficult task.

There are, after all, more than one million apps in the Apple AppStore, and a similar number in the Google Play store. That’s a lot of conversations for Google to have, even if it is making it possible for developers to reach out to it.

HTML5 And The Mobile Web

It needn’t be this way. One of the core premises of HTML5 is that HTML5 apps—even hybrid apps that combine both HTML5 and native code—are searchable. This is good for Google, of course, but it’s also good for developers. The primary problem that any developer has is to get someone to use her application. It’s this same principle that has made open source so successful: proprietary software protects first in order to monetize, but it’s impossible to monetize something that no one knows or cares about.

And yet Google’s efforts in HTML5 have been somewhat muted.

This isn’t to suggest that Google hasn’t promoted HTML5. It has. Google has been evangelizing HTML5 for years through sites like HTML5 Rocks, great design tools and other means. And yet both Apple and Microsoft have often more vocal proponents of HTML5 than Google.

No matter Google’s sincerity on HTML5, however, is the reality that it doesn’t appear to be united in its efforts to make the mobile web searchable, as former Mozilla CEO (and current partner with Greylock, a venture firm) John Lilly points out:

Building The Web Google’s Way

Yes, there are problems with HTML5. It still doesn’t deliver the performance that native code can. But often this criticism applies to 100% HTML5 apps, and misses the more popular hybrid approach. Developers are increasingly targeting HTML5, as a recent VisionMobile report indicates, though generally as their back-up to Android and iOS, which Google should do more to foster and to target.

Google knows how to index the web. By investing heavily in improving and promoting HTML5, Google could help to build the mobile web, and monetize it handsomely. 

This isn’t without precedent. Back in 2001 IBM announced that it would spend $1 billion to make Linux an enterprise-grade operating system. Thirteen years later, Linux dominates a broad swath of markets. Perhaps it’s time for Google to make its own $1 billion commitment, this time to HTML5.