Google Goes Native, Moves Into App Development?

Here’s another advance in that debate over whether apps or the mobile web will be the dominant way of accessing mobile content in the years to come: after years of only minimal development of apps, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has started to hire developers and redeploy staff in an effort to build up its own real estate in the apps space across different platforms — even, it seems, going so far as to act as publisher itself in areas like games.

The news, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes on the same day that analysts from Canalys and NPD both announced that Google’s Android mobile operating system overtook other operating systems to dominate the smartphone landscape in Q4 2010.

Up to now, the thinking at Google was that smartphone users would eventually end up on the mobile web, where they would use Google products via browsers just as they have done on their PCs.

But now it appears that line is changing. The WSJ reports that app development will now be “scattered” worldwide, with small groups of engineers tasked with creating apps that not just extend Google’s online products, but even forge ahead into new areas like games.

The recruitment effort, says the WSJ, is being led by Benamin Ling, a product-management director for the company.

If these reports are true, this is a big step change for Google. Not only has Google not done all that much in apps, but up to now, the search giant has refrained from doing much in the area of content publishing, preferring instead to be an aggregator or conduit for third-party material — much as Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has done in its App Store as well.

Developing native apps is an approach that Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) has taken to some extent: in November, Distimo reported — early days notwithstanding — that six of the 10 most popular apps in the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace were developed by Microsoft itself.

The Android Market has become a strong number-two for the world’s largest app store, after Apple’s App Store, with nearly 200,000 and over 350,000 apps respectively. Apple recently celebrated its 10-billionth app download — a milestone and sign, if one was needed, of how popular apps are right now.

But despite Google’s dominance on the mobile OS side, the company has not done much in terms of developing apps to access its own services, especially on platforms outside of its home-grown Android OS, creating only about 20 mobile apps to date.

If you go to the Apple App Store, for example, there are only a handful of apps actually made by Google itself. They cover services that are very mobile-specific, such as Google’s friend-finding service Latitude, its location-based discovery service Places and Google Maps, as well as an app that goes directly to its search page. There are literally hundreds of other “Google” apps, but they’re actually made by third parties using Google’s APIs.

The Android Market, unsurprisingly, has seen more Google apps. So, for example, a recent update for Google Goggles (pictured), available only for Android devices, now allows users to scan barcodes and other objects with their handsets in order to search for items on the mobile web.