(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Given the media obsession over Google (GOOG), it's no surprise that days before the company's earnings announcement this afternoon there was intense scrutiny over what the company might say. Most of the attention focuses on two issues: Will Google miss expectations for a second quarter in a row, and what will its cost per click numbers -- a measure of how much the search giant makes on average online ad -- show?
The two are related, of course. The options market, which can reflect the level of investor concern about a stock, is largely sanguine over Google's earnings. Maybe that's because seasoned investors understand that the company's challenges aren't so much making its first quarter-numbers as how Google will address the following longer term questions:
Who will control Android?
Google's mobile strategy revolves around the Android operating system. But one big user in the tablet space, Amazon (AMZN), has shown that it could and would that effectively locked Google out of controlling the relationship with consumers of the Kindle Fire. Others, such as Samsung, could do that as well, either creating their own software marketplaces or partnering with others on ones that sat outside of what Google wanted. If Google cannot maintain control over Android, its mobile ambitions will hit a wall.
How long will search engines remain dominant?
For years, people went to search engines to get their information. Google came out on top and rode that trend to fame and fortune. But there are already indications that, in the long run, Internet users may lean toward getting recommendations from friends and acquaintances. When people first go to services such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and others for online suggestions, how long before an important part of Google's business begins to wither away?
Can Google really enter the social network space?
Social networking is a must for Google, and it has put a lot of effort and money into creating Google+ after such previous failures as Buzz and Wave. A lot of people have tried Google+, but it isn't generating much excitement and engaging users in the same way that the most successful social networks seem to. Average usage time on Google+ isn't terribly impressive. That suggests Google could still effectively get locked out of this new wave of communications and computing.
Will Google successfully transition to a hardware product company?
Google decided to buy Motorola, but even if the devices all used Android, it would still be a foreign business for the Internet company, which has never had a clear sense of how to deal with customers. Then again, Google also has had mixed results in trying to brand and sell hardware under its own name. Furthermore, the acquisition has to be making other hardware vendors nervous given the way the industry runs. Even if it was a play for patents, unless the company moves very carefully it could prove to be a massive injury to the Android business, as there are always other choices for handset vendors.
Google is at an inflection point over the next few years, where the business could turn into something even bigger than it is or begin a long period of decline. The answers to these critical questions won't come today.