We’re really just at the beginning of the era of “mobile search.” Even what we think of as “search” will be dramatically altered by innovations in mobile. In this first phase the transfer of what might be called the “query box” (and related links) into mobile is complete. In time, however, we many even come to see that image — the white box with the search button to the right — as a kind of metaphor for something more intangible (i.e., directed intent) that can be fulfilled in a variety of ways.
Google is already the dominant player in search on mobile devices and certainly on smartphones, the most active category of mobile users. (It remains to be seen how the Microsoft-Verizon “default” deal will affect the market as it rolls out.) However, recognizing the challenges and limitations of manually keying in queries on mobile devices, the major engines all have voice interface/input options:
- Google (uses its own speech recognition technology)
- Yahoo (uses Vlingo for mobile oneSearch)
- Microsoft (uses Tellme, which it acquired in 2007)
Voice as a search tool will only continue to get better. Tellme recently released survey results that show favorable consumer attitudes toward voice on mobile devices. As the services become more reliable and accurate — they’re already very good — consumers will increasingly use them to retrieve content and information because they’re faster and easier than manually keying in queries.
Another less obvious form of search involves mobile apps on the iPhone and Android, and other smartphone platforms increasingly, which show the closest gas station, ATM or cafe “nearby” using the phone’s built in location awareness capabilities. Yelp and AroundMe on the iPhone are just two examples among a number of apps:
Google itself has an app on Android called Places Directory, which is almost identical and de-emphasizes traditional “search.” But these apps, which don’t actually require any query to be entered, are just as much “search” in terms of the user’s mindset as manually inputting “sushi, new york” in Google.com on a PC.
Another step away from the query box, but still search, is represented by some of the product search tools and services now on smartphones, such as as the Amazon or ShopSavvy apps for Android devices.
These are two examples of a growing trend involving the camera as search tool or input device. They allow you to take a picture using the phone’s camera or use a barcode scanner through the camera to obtain price information, reviews and, in the case of ShopSavvy, where to buy the item locally. The mobile version of Google Product Search (on Android) offers barcode scanning as well. Similarly, use of the camera to capture QR codes to gain additional information can be seen as a kind of search, although it starts to get a bit fuzzy in my expanded definition (“directed intent”) because users may be responding to a call to action and not necessarily actively looking for something.
Yet a further step away from the query box on mobile devices comes in the form of “augmented reality.” Augmented reality apps are starting to pop up on smartphones: Layar, TwitARound and several others are in development. Most recently a company called Acrossair in the UK has developed an augmented reality app for the iPhone. It helps find the nearest underground stop and related information about routing.
As people direct their cameras to find the nearest tube station or, in a future app, to get reviews about a restaurant across the street, they are “searching” for information — albeit by other means. This and some of the other methods described above provide faster, richer or more immediate ways to get information and content than would otherwise be accessed through a traditional query box and related links.
Stepping back, we can start to see how “search” on mobile devices will diversify and broaden beyond the narrow way we tend to think of it today. In this broader world of directed intent that can be fulfilled in a number of ways, depending on the situation and the item or need in question, we move beyond the search box. And if “mobile search” already seems to be locked up by Google, this broader landscape that uses location-awareness, barcode scanners, image recognition and augmented reality is wide open.