Commentary

Google's Trojan App

Well, if the tablet users won’t move from Apple to Android, then Google might as well bring its app suite to the iPad. The company issued a major rebuild of its core app for the iPad yesterday that could well challenge Apple and Safari’s own control of the Web surfing experience on the device -- and more. From the basic search experience to site previewing and app integration, the new app is a serious play to capture the tablet mindshare Google seems unable to achieve on Android.

The fundamental search process on the Google app is much improved. Now we get the same kind of instant search we have become accustomed to on the Web, with dynamically served search results that evolve with your keyword entry. The voice search continues to impress with its accuracy. The site previewing is my favorite part. A clickthrough slips a new window atop the results page that you can swipe away or allow to occupy a fraction of the screen while you continue to review results on the left hand side. You can also thumb through results in site preview form as well. Swipe again to the left to go through thumbnails of your own search history.

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If they just add bookmarking, then Google has a credible alternative browsing experience that could eat Safari. If they let users like me pull in my synched Google Chrome bookmarks I use on my Mac and Windows, they seal the deal.

And this is where it gets even more interesting. Tap the applications button and much of the Google suite of Web apps appears in neat icons, from Gmail to Picasa, Google Earth to Blogger and Books. To be sure, many of these icons, like Earth and Books, really lead you to the standalone Google apps for each. And I am not sure what Google Voice is doing here, because it throws back an error message about it not being available on mobile devices. But in the case of Google Docs you can open and edit whatever documents you made and saved across the Google platforms. Likewise the Google Reader interface is a credible RSS client here, and your Google News customization follow you onto the app. The YouTube link actually calls up the iOS integrated Youtube app.

What is interesting here is how the new Google app for iPad is approaching the functionality and integration of an alternative desktop within an iPad app. Granted, much of the material is just embedding the Web experience in an app frame. But it certainly hints at what Google could do here if it simply integrated the pieces into a more seamless whole  -- an iPad killer on the iPad itself.

If Google can manage within a single app to make document creation and file management, messaging, social networking, calendaring, image management, etc. work fluidly with one another, then they are onto something and may outgun Apple on its own platform. It is a big “if,” to be sure. Sometimes I think that the clean, barren search box front page was the last smart design decision Google ever made. Just about everything they do, from Gmail to Earth to Android itself, feels to me just over-engineered, cluttered, geeky, to be honest.

But some of the elegance with which the Google iPad app slides you across different functions within the same frame reminds me how much the device begs for an integrated suite. If tablets are going to be a real part of people’s digital lives, then they will have to work more continuously with the rest of our platforms. The iOS interface is still a collection of discrete apps that requires a lot of bouncing in and out in order to get some tasks done. This may be the best opportunity Google has to make a mark on the tablet market that Android has not.

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