2005 is Year of Local Mobile Search

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Nat Torkington
Mar. 11, 2005 09:20 AM

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Highlights from an interesting article on mobile search:
  • "If you fix those issues, it makes the delivery of advertising possible," [Director of Google's entrepreneurial division] Harik said. "Monetization always follows use, and the stage we're in is perfecting usage."
  • Styers said Google likely will charge a small premium to consumers for its SMS service once out of beta and those fees will be split with the carrier. Google denied any plans to charge, however.
  • 4Info's business model of facilitating then taking a slice of the transactions that occur after search
The article also mentions the pie-in-the-sky fantasy of beaming ads to people whenever they get close to a product they might be interested in. I read a brilliant line by The Other Russell in his blog : Well, the first point here is that post-modern marketing is about permission and adding value - not slapping people in the face with a wet fish and saying "Hey, Shithead, buy my product." And then, doing it again and again and again. This is sad for the advertising community as it's a pretty easy thing to do, but things have moved on. Testify!

Why do I care? Because I've been through a series of increasingly expensive yet still disappointing gadgets as I travel a lot this year. When I get to a new city, I need information without having laptop net access: I need to find addresses for businesses I know the name of, find addresess for businesses whose category I know ("BBQ Restaurants" is a popular search for me), and get directions to those places. All on my mobile.

The technology out there just doesn't cut it. Google SMS is a good start, and it responds faster now than it did when it launched. They have a WAP search portal but it requires you to type "pizza, fort collins co" instead of "pizza 80525" if you only want yellow pages results, quite the challenge for my aging T9 skills. Yahoo!'s strategy is two-pronged: they have a portal aimed at mobile screens where you can read mail, search web, or search local (it groks zipcodes); they also have a clipping service where you can send the results of a search you make on your desktop to your mobile phone.

These existing mobile search packages all suffer from the limitations of the software on the devices: they're running in WAP browsers or SMS. Who will develop the local app that ships with phones, that might use web services underneath but which runs as its own rich-UI app on the phone? I want click-to-zoom on maps. I want Google Maps-like elegance on my phone. And not because I want I want, but because I need it--once I've found my way to a company, I want to know where the nearest Starbucks is so I can amp up before the meeting starts. Search is iterative, part of a larger process and not a process in itself.

Of course, there are huge issues facing anyone developing mobile apps. Handset capabilities are a quagmire, and the carriers bitterly resent the idea that anyone else should get a slice of the mobile pie but themselves. Some hope that Flash Lite will be the standard platform, which seems like a long-term solution at best. The walled garden is more of a problem, with companies unwilling to even expose the GPS capabilities of their phones to developers without a kickback. I can only have hope that their narrow-mindedness will force them to change, that someone will buckle first. Nextel might be the first to go--the TeleNav system is a great start.

The imperial aims of the carriers are what made that quote from George Harik ring true. Monetization follows usage, but the carriers are standing in the way of usage and thus monetization. How long before the pent-up pressure of Google, Yahoo!, and a growing number of funded startups is enough to break down the walled garden forever?

(This makes me think that "Mr Dotson, Tear Down That Wall" would be a great title for an article. Om, it's all yours :-)

Nat Torkington is conference planner for the Open Source Convention, OSCON Europe, and other O'Reilly conferences. He was project manager for Perl 6, is on the board of The Perl Foundation, and is a frequent speaker on open source topics. He cowrote the bestselling Perl Cookbook.