Search technology has transformed the way that people use the Internet and has made piles of money for giants like Google. This week at Mobile Internet World 2008, in Boston, industry leaders gathered to talk about emerging technologies that might at last bring useful Internet search to mobile devices too.
In many developed countries, official figures show that there are more phones than people. But even as companies rush to take advantage of these increasingly powerful and ubiquitous devices, experts acknowledge that using the Internet on mobile devices remains forbiddingly difficult on many handsets. The untapped potential of mobile search, in particular, was a major theme at the Boston event.
Some say that the problem is the mobile interface. “I think the numbers really show that if you do give a better experience, you’ll see that come through on the usage side,” says Hadley Harris, director of business development and finance at Vlingo, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, that offers voice-recognition software for cell phones. Harris notes that the superior Web browser on the iPhone has already had such an impact: on average, iPhone users perform 50 times more Web searches than do people using any other smart-phone device.
To get more people to search with their phone, DeWayne Nelon, CEO of Avot Media, a startup based in Sunnyvale, CA, that offers mobile video technology, says that it is important to appreciate how people use these devices. “We tend, as an industry, to treat the mobile device as a small laptop, and it’s not a small laptop,” Nelon says. Whereas people sitting in front of a desktop or laptop computer will often spend long periods browsing the Internet, he notes that people armed with a mobile device will most likely be looking for a quick answer to a specific question. Above all else, he says, mobile search should be fast and simple to use.
Inputting a search query can be time consuming using a cell-phone keyboard, Nelon says, so speech recognition should be explored as a way to search the Web. Other phone features could aid with searching, he says. For example, cell-phone cameras could perhaps make image-based search effective. But Nelon adds that the mobile platform also offers new possibilities. For instance, he says that mobile search should take advantage of the navigation capabilities that are now built into many mobile devices.