February 17, 2010, 12:00 PM — Google CEO Eric Schmidt put mobile devices squarely at the center of the computing universe in his first keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in an address that follows up mobile announcements including Apple's iPad and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series .
In his address late Tuesday, Schmidt touted the growth and importance of mobile devices in fairly glorious terms, and urged application developers inside and outside of Google to "work on mobile first," ahead of desktop computers.
Some of his observations apparently seemed obvious to industry insiders in the audience, whom Schmidt had to chide when they did not loudly applaud Google's latest search-by-voice and search-by-image applications.
Schmidt was right, in a way. Perhaps mobile phone industry insiders are jaded about how important smartphones and other small mobile devices have become since they are so powerful, personal and portable.
Schmidt reminded listeners of two Haiti earthquake victims, one who used a mobile phone to help rescuers locate her and a man who used an iPhone app to diagnose his wounds.
However, for Google and other companies, the value of mobile phones is their sheer rate of adoption and their numbers in the hands of users. Schmidt noted that sales of smartphones are growing at 30% year-over-year, and will soon surpass global PC sales.
He argued that mobile Web adoption is growing eight times faster annually than Web adoption did 10 years ago for the desktop. Half the Internet connections are made by mobile devices, he said, noting that more Google searches are done on mobile devices than on desktops in emerging countries.
Schmidt took some tough, even angry, questions from his audience, who seemed to include network operators concerned that Google is trying to write smart applications that will render networks nothing more than "dumb pipes" that network operators can't make money on.
But Schmidt praised the value of good networks that manage applications appropriately, keeping their quality of service high. He said the future of mobile devices, including the Google-backed Android OS, will require a merging of three things: powerful computing, efficient network connectivity and use of cloud servers for performing an array of sophisticated tasks that can't be done on the phone alone, such as voice and visual searches.