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Searching for the Mobile Web

Industry leaders hope that new technologies will make mobile search more usable.

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.

Harris believes that Semantic Web technologies (which allow machines to process the meaning of information on the Web) could also streamline mobile search in the future. “As the Semantic Web builds up, [the software will] answer specific questions and pay attention to what the user is trying to do on the device,” he says.

But making cell phones smarter and more intuitive will require more processing power. Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of the ultra-mobility group at Intel, demonstrated the company’s latest low-power cell-phone chip–the Atom–at the conference. During a demonstration, Gunnar Evermann of speech-recognition company Nuance showed the company’s software running on a mobile device. He used composed and sent an e-mail employing only his voice.

Although many startups are working on improving interfaces and mobile services for search, experts warn that it could be hard to dislodge the giants. “People are looking for known brands on mobile devices,” says Christian Seider of IBM’s Institute for Business Value in the Electronics Industry. He thinks that many users will want to access the same Internet services that they get through their PC, so it could be hard–particularly for young companies–to find ways to make money off their technology.

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