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Google betting big on mobile market--and Apple

Search giant sees spike in mobile use from iPhones at Christmas and unveils a customizable interface to iPhone applications at Macworld.

Vic Gundotra, a vice president of engineering at Google, shows off the new user interface of Google Web apps for the iPhone being unveiled at Macworld on Monday. Google

(This post has been updated to reflect Google's announcement on Monday.)

On Christmas Day thousands of people opened up boxes with something cool and functional inside and wasted no time logging onto through their brand new iPhones.

As a result of those gifts, the number of global queries to Google's search site from iPhones surpassed the number of queries from people using market-leading Symbian-based phones for the first time. Google calls it the "Christmas cross-over."

That is huge given the fact that the number of iPhone units shipped is tiny compared to the number of Symbian-based phones out there. The cross-over only lasted a few days or so, but it shows the impact the iPhone is having on the telecommunications industry and provides a glimpse into its future market potential for the Web.

"It's about usage, not just units," Vic Gundotra, vice president of mobile and developer at Google, said in a recent interview with CNET "The data proves that people are using the browser on the iPhone."

The iPhone revolutionized the industry by making it easy and affordable to use the Web on a cell phone, he says. Google is offering Web apps written for the iPhone browser that bring the PC experience to the mobile device, he says.

On Monday--the first day of Macworld--Google unveiled a new user interface for its iPhone Web apps that make Gmail, search, Reader, Calendar, Picasa and other services faster to use and more customizable. It also has optimized iGoogle for the iPhone.

Now, new e-mail messages automatically show up so you don't need to hit refresh, messages can arrive in 25 seconds or less and auto-complete makes composing an e-mail faster. Calendar offers a month-at-a-glance view that isn't yet offered on the desktop. Your favorite apps are in tabs at the top of the screen and they can be switched around.

"This app will work great on Android," Google's mobile software platform launched in November, says Gundotra.

What's next? Will more Google apps join YouTube and Google Maps on the iPhone's home screen that shows up when the device is first turned on?

Gundotra smiles mischievously.

"One thing that bothers me is that (mobile) apps don't work offline," he says when prodded.

Given that Google launched Google Gears, which allows people to work on their Web apps even when they are not connected to the Internet, last May it's likely they'll have something similar for mobile soon.