Google I/O: Window Into the Real Future of the Web

Google’s Web-based applications such as Gmail and Google Docs often look to casual observers like a tiny sideshow to the company’s main event, which overwhelmingly remains search. Some folks even think they’re little more than a jab by CEO Eric Schmidt at his longtime nemesis, Microsoft.

Today, at Google I/O, the search giant is aiming to prove the skeptics wrong once and for all. I/O, which stands for Innovation in the Open, is Google’s conference for software developers looking to create the next wave of services on the Web. And the presence of most of the nearly 3,000 developers overflowing a large ballroom at San Francisco’s Moscone Center seems to indicate Google has arrived as a guiding force in the future of the Web well beyond search into the broad realm of cloud computing. “The Web has become the dominant platform of our era,” Google engineering VP Vic Gundotra said hopefully to the throng.

But he also conceded an interesting point: “Clouds in many ways are just as inaccessible as mainframes were.” So Google’s aiming to beef up three areas where Web applications have struggled to reach the ease and pervasive utility of desktop and enterprise applications.

First, it’s looking to improve the Web browser, which still can’t run applications as sophisticated as desktop apps. “That Web browser is evolving slowly,” notes Gundotra. “We want to move up the capabilities of the browser.” Part of that will come through Google Gears, its open source project intended to improve the browser’s ability to run rich media applications. MySpace showed how it’s using Gears to upgrade its messaging system.

Google’s also also starting to open up its own, massive computing infrastructure to outsiders. That’s what the recently announced Google App Engine is intended to enable. At the conference, Google announced that the project, until now limited to a few anointed geeks to test it out, is now open to anyone (any geek who can understand it, that is).

Finally, the company’s trying, through various initiatives such as WiFi investments and pushes to open up the new wireless spectrum that Verizon, AT&T, and others bought recently, to make Internet connectivity even more pervasive. Google is making a concerted push for better mobile access with its Android mobile phone platform, in an attempt to make it easier for developers who now must write to up to 14 phone software platforms.

UPDATE: At a private business roundtable on “Developing in the Cloud,” a couple of enterprise applications developers are talking about how they’re floating their apps in the cloud. StrongTech CEO Michael Patterson says his company is integrating its asset management applications into Google Calendar, Maps, and Docs and hosting the combined package on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud, the computing-on-demand service offered by the Web retailer. Sample users: ranchers managing their cattle and kids (OK, not an enterprise user, but certainly a mass-market customer) managing their Pokemon collection.

Narinder Singh of Appirio, which is helping corporations move to on-demand computing, says his 60-person company was built entirely “in the cloud,” not just on Google Apps but as well. He notes that the trend to cloud computing will actually shrink the information technology industry as it exists today, because companies won’t be buying as much traditional hardware and software. “But what you’ll expand is the base of people using the technology” because more people can afford it on an on-demand basis. Ultimately, he says, “that’s what’ll expand the market.”

And here I thought I was missing the hot event of the day, the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad. Which I am. But the real future of the Web is getting created here.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.