A host of downloadable offerings are helping users of high-end handsets locate the nearest hardware store, check the local weather forecast or scroll through the latest headlines. That trend — like many others in mobile data — is being driven by devices such as the iPhone and the Android-based G1, which couple an impressive user experience with well-stocked, user-friendly app stores.
The phenomenon is leading some observers to claim that apps are better suited for mobile use than traditional search engines. “Right now, specialized apps are providing a much more tailored experience than mobile search portals like Google and Yahoo,” according to TechRepublic’s Jason Hiner. “And as smartphones become more dominant, it is going to naturally migrate some power and influence away from search (and Google) and toward mobile computing applications.”
Hiner is correct in noting that downloadable applications can be far easier to use than traditional search services. Even QWERTY keyboards can be difficult to use, and mobile search results — yes, even Google’s — often include web pages that are impossible to view on a handset. And contextual services — which deliver different results based on time, place, type of device being used, etc. — are far from living up to their potential. But to claim that the new applications threaten Google or any other online search provider misses the point.
Yes, the PC model of typing in keywords to perform a search is ill-suited for mobile, but established online search providers understand this and are making solid strides in building alternative methods. Both Google and Yahoo have invested heavily in speech-recognition technology in an effort to eliminate the need to type in keywords — the single biggest pain point in mobile search. Google last week released an Android app called Places Directory, which organizes content into popular categories and automatically presents nearby businesses.
Just as importantly, the number of niche-specific search apps is already reaching dizzying heights. Techie geeks may be fine using one downloadable app to find a local taxi service, another to find a job and a third to shop for a new home, but most of us would rather take our chances using the mobile web than load up a phone with seldom-used offerings. Typing in a few words for a mobile search isn’t much more tedious than scrolling through a litany of apps to find the right one, after all. And sifting through app-store libraries for the right search offering isn’t all that much fun, either.
There’s no doubt that mobile search is still a wide-open space where innovative startups can thrive. But the entrenched online players are still doing very well among both smartphone users and more mainstream, feature-phone-toting consumers. The Googles and Yahoos of the world will continue to play major roles in mobile search — it’s just the search box that will fade into the distance.