Google Makes Lots on Mobile Ads. What Are You Going To Do About It?

Last Updated Oct 15, 2010 10:49 AM EDT

Such corporations as Apple (AAPL), Nokia (NOK), AT&T (T), and Verizon (VZ) have shown that there's money in handsets and wireless services. But one area that has left many wondering and hoping has been mobile ads and commerce. Now Google (GOOG) has revealed its run rates and the question turns from if to just how much and what you can do with the this business.

Back in early August, I did a basic analysis that suggested Google was on a run rate to make at least $1.4 billion a year on Android mobile ads, with no end in sight. That doesn't even count what Google could make from people using its search engine on other handsets. Here's the logic:

  1. Even if Android sales flatten out, Google is well on its way to activate more than 100 million units a year. No fandom here, just basic math.
  2. As CEO Eric Schmidt said to the Wall Street Journal in July, the idea of Google making $10 a year per Android user is a low-balled estimate. I agree. With multiple ads per page, it shouldn't be hard to get someone to see $1.67 a month worth of ads. That's $20 a year.
  3. Although most of the units are phones, not all are, and not all purchases are by new users. So say that only 70 percent of the purchases will be unique users who will be capable of seeing ads. I'd argue this is low-balling it, but that's fine for now.
  4. That leaves Google with 70 million users generating $20 a year, for $1.4 billion.
Does the 100 million a year seem unrealistic, even though Google has already pushed nearly 20 million a quarter? Fine, be conservative and leave it at 80 million a year. Take the same 70 percent (another conservative number, by the way) and you've got 56 million on handsets. Multiply by $20 and you're still over $1 billion. Maybe some portion of the public doesn't use Google search on mobile. That's fine, as many phones running other operating systems can still reach the company's search engine.

The reason this is so important to not just the tech and media industries but other parts of commerce is that mobile has had an unfulfilled promise for nearly 15 years. In the late 1990s, pundits and hopeful vendors tried to promote how mobile commerce was going to become an enormous force and how a big part of that would be marketing via handsets. At that point, the expectations were premature and unrealistic.

But technology and social habits have changed. Google's announcement of its mobile ad run rates not only validates its Android strategy (because the company has likely far more than offset the development costs), but the entire mobile ad concept.

Once you know that there's potentially big money in ads, you open additional business model possibilities. Developers might, indeed, be able to give away software and still make money. Businesses might decide that, yes, advertising over a handset could make sense. If you can drive the ad dollars up enough, a company might even be able to give away a handset or tablet as an enticement to sign up for some sort of wireless or information service. Perhaps a device becomes a premium for loyal customers of almost any kind of business. Who knows? Maybe Google buys a company like HTC, gives away millions of handsets, and still makes money.

The point is, when the revenue dynamics change, so can strategic thinking. It's time for executives to be creative and a little wild-eyed in their business daydreaming.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.