By Carlo Longino
Mobile search has been quietly chugging along, with all the usual suspects and a big group of startups releasing their furtive efforts without too much fanfare. Things heated up last week with with separate announcements from giants Yahoo! and Google — with Yahoo saying it was working with SBC on a branded phone built around easy access to its mobile content, while Google released Google Local Mobile, a J2ME application for accessing its local and map services.
Searching on a mobile phone is a very different animal than web search, with most searches based around some task: I'm looking for the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot, what time does the movie start, what's the weather forecast, and so on. Given the limitations of mobile devices and their user interfaces, search has to be approached very differently. Giving links to pages that might contain the information a user's looking for doesn't really work too well; returning the information directly instead is much more useful. Simply put, mobile search is a search for mobile information.
This poses a few obstacles for search providers. The first is the search interface, and the second is the type of information accessible from it. A web form isn't the best format for mobile phones, for a number of reasons: many people still don't have phones or data plans that can access the Internet, and some carriers still don't let their users outside a walled garden of mobile content they've approved. Compatibility issues are a headache, and often mean mobile sites must cater to the lowest common denominator. Google's WML search site, for instance, transcodes HTML sites to phone-friendly WML, but the result is generally pretty unintelligible. But there's an even lower common denominator than plain-vanilla WAP: the text message.
Text messaging is a pretty basic functionality that's available on just about any phone sold today. It's carrier-independent and the interface is generally familiar to people as it just uses the normal messaging application on their phone, and the types of information people typically want when they're on the go fit nicely into a text message. It also doesn't have to be a self-contained message. Yahoo!'s SMS search results include a link back to the Yahoo! Mobile site, where users can access maps, directions and other info. The SMS message can contain simple results, or it can be a jumping-off point to find more results from the mobile Internet.
But the interface doesn't have to be solely dependent on text entry, either. Most phones now have a camera, so if I see something I want more information on, why not just snap a picture of it, and have my phone look it up? Silicon Valley startup 23half has announced its nThrum application that does just that. Well, sort of — it's in beta, and currently only works with text. It's pretty straightforward: you load up the app (currently available only on some Symbian Series 60 handsets), and take a picture of some text with something you'd like to search on. The software figures out what the word is, then goes out and gets the relevant search results. It's a little finicky, but is still in beta and should improve with time. It's an interesting interface that can simplify a lot of searches.
Handset cameras will undoubtedly play a bigger role very soon in mobile search. In Japan, for instance, Amazon has released an application that reads product barcodes and delivers price comparisons. This same information is already available to US users via Froogle SMS, or by looking up the information in a phone's web browser. Needless to say, snapping the barcode image is far easier, and probably more accurate to boot. Also in the country, operator NTT DoCoMo has developed an image-recognizing ad server that lets people take pictures of ads or billboards, then compares them to a database of ads to connect the user to the relevant advertiser. So the days of snapping a picture of just about anything, then getting search results or information sent back to your phone probably aren't too far off. If you're in Japan, anyway.
Advertising drives much of the new developments in search because somebody's got to foot the bill, but what other types of information will people want to search for from their phones? Local search will remain of the utmost importance, and search providers will continue to improve their efforts in this area, particularly as handsets' location-sensing abilities improve. Remote access to personal information and data will be important, too, and some companies already have software to let mobile users search their desktop computers.
Mobile search is driven by the mobile lifestyle, which is itself still only emerging, particularly in the US. There's a fundamental difference in the way people search, and what they want from search, when they're mobile. Search providers are beginning to think like mobile users, and figure out the information people are looking for — and mobile search is picking up accordingly.
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