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Google Dreams of a World After Apps but It's a Nightmare for Rivals

"In an app world, Google is nothing."


With one search algorithm tweak this week, Google rekindled deep-seated fears that it is doing its damnedest to nuke apps.

Maybe. Google earns more money when people are on the mobile Web, not in apps. Publicly, the company has voiced support for solving the nagging problems of apps, discovery and dormancy. Internally, however, chatter is less about crippling apps than imagining a world beyond them.

Conversations with people inside and recently departed from Google reveal that the company is spending considerable attention on what comes after mobile apps, and how Google can usher that era in. A primary vehicle for doing so is app indexing and deep linking, methods to tie content within and between apps. Apple and a host of Silicon Valley startups are doing this as well. But Google’s effort is unique in that it is wrapped tightly with search and artificial intelligence — and, like Google’s approach to the Web, it is all-encompassing in its scope.

“They feel pretty comfortable that in the next few years they’ll be able to index all apps and the mobile Web,” said one former Googler working in the mobile industry. “The app thing is just going to go away.”

That’s one way to interpret the controversial search tweak from Tuesday. Google announced it was punishing mobile websites that run full-screen app install ads. Here is Google’s logic: If you search for something and a takeover ad pops up, you can’t see that something. Bad search experience.

Others argued the move was antagonistic to apps. In its defense, Google pointed to its two-year-long push to index app content, akin to Web search. For Google, apps are merely a layer sitting on top of a service, and Google wants to be the tissue connecting all those layers. In 2013, the company rolled out app indexing, which let Google crawl app content, much like the Web, to surface apps within search for users to download or link directly to their pages. Search for an apartment in San Francisco and a link to a page in Trulia crops up.

Trouble is, Google’s not alone. A host of startups — among them, the well-funded URX, Quixey and Button — are also working on the issues with mobile search, pitching themselves to developers as a less invasive alternative to Google. For many developers, working with Google means better odds of exposure in exchange for surrendering data and control over how app content is surfaced.

Several rivals, along with app publishers and ad sellers, interpreted Google’s move this week as hostile. “It’s basically Google starting to meddle with people’s products,” said Alex Austin, CEO of Branch Metrics, a deep-linking firm. Austin noted that with Google’s app indexing drive, it is pushing app creators to build mobile websites.

“In an app world,” he said, “Google is nothing.”

Google declined to comment. Sources close to the company noted how the algorithm change only applies to mobile search results and does not dictate how apps shape their internal products.

There are some hints of how Google envisions mobile evolving beyond apps. Now on Tap, its feature launching soon in Android, inserts Google’s personal assistant tech and search intel into apps that allow it, essentially allowing a more seamless transition from app to app on a phone. A chat in email about a movie, for instance, would jump quickly to the app of IMDB. Voice control plays a role in the app-less future, too.

And Google is obsessed with tackling latency, the time needed to use websites and apps. Sometime last fall, the company quietly acquired Agawi, a gaming startup working on tech to stream apps, The Information first reported. At its developer conference, Google teased how the tech could be applied: Offering users the ability to test apps without downloading them, creating a world of apps that, more or less, resembles the Web. Search for something one app is particularly good for solving and Google may soon let you test out that app without downloading it first.

Reaching that world beyond apps may be more difficult for Google than it was before. Google needs the buy-in from app makers. And it may need to fight off rivals and regulators. Competition authorities in the European Union, currently pursuing a case against Google for its comparison shopping product, have said they are open to extending the case to other services. At least one complainant noted the issue raised this week, of blocking of app-install ads in search results, in its statement to the EU, according to documents seen by Re/code.

The algorithm tweak is a blatant example of Google “extending [its] search monopoly on mobile,” said Luther Lowe, VP of policy for Yelp. “This hypocritical and disturbing behavior should have every antitrust enforcement agency on high alert.”

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