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A small Midwestern startup is rethinking the way we use web search on our phones by tweaking the now-standard Google (s GOOG) layout. Their solution is a mobile app called Leap2 Navigator, which is available now in the iOS App Store (s AAPL). It’s initially for the iPhone only, though the company plans to make the jump to Google’s own Android very soon. It’s an admirable — though still incomplete — solution to what can be a somewhat annoying aspect of smartphone use.
Make no mistake, Leap2 isn’t rethinking the search algorithm itself, just the way results are presented and contextualized. Google is the undisputed king of search, regardless of platform, owning roughly two-thirds of the total web search market. It’s in position to dominate mobile search as well, with Android on millions of phones, Google (s GOOG) search apps for other mobile OSes, and of course Google is accessible via any mobile browser.
But the problem, according to the guys at Leap2, is that it’s the same desktop browser search experience, just shrunk down to a smaller screen.
There have been some other creative end runs around using Google to search on a mobile device lately, with things like Apple’s Siri, the voice control assistant on the iPhone 4S, which lets users speak questions you might typically Google, but instead Siri does the search and answers instantaneously.
Leap2 isn’t that drastic. It’s built on Microsoft’s Bing’s API (s MSFT), but the top results (in my experience) have never been from Bing. Its aim is to make a search app that works best on a smartphone screen because it was made for a smartphone screen.
“Google’s results [page] is 9,000 results and in descending order,” Leap 2 co-founder and CEO Michael Farmer pointed out in an interview. They have the data there, but it’s not as useful if you don’t happen to be scrolling with a mouse and or scroll buttons on a browser window.
Instead, Leap2 works with a simple but creative layout: the top half of the screen uses two slot-machine-like scrolling reels, the bottom half displays your results. The large one on the left is your search field you type into, and above and below your search you can scroll to suggested related search terms that pop up based on the keywords you provided. On the right, a smaller scrolling reel has icons you can choose to better target your search to a specific category, like news, social sites, images, general phonebook info (like business names, numbers and addresses), location/maps and shopping.
When you type in your search, instead of a results list of links a la typical desktop search, you get three tabs of websites that open up on the bottom half of the screen. The middle tab is what Leap2 thinks you’re looking for, the No. 1 result. The left tab is the No. 2 result, and the right tab the No. 3 result.
This layout is meant to be the quickest and easiest way to interact with your results, and it’s tailored to those who might navigate or search with with just a thumb or a few fingers.
“The biggest thing driving our navigation, it creates a sideways T,” explained Farmer. “If you hold your phone with your right hand, you can navigate easy across the center and with your right hand you navigate up and down […] Leap 2 focuses on a six -square-inch display, and where your thumb is. That six-inch square is always in your field of view.”
The reason your No. 1 result is in that center tab is because the middle of the phone is easiest to reach with your thumb. And the idea of displaying the web page instead of just a link is so you can see if it’s a site you trust or not immediately.
Taking the leap
I really like the idea of Leap2, and while the app works, it’s a bit rough around the edges. Here’s what I found:
- It anticipates what you want correctly much of the time. I searched for Hotel Monteleon in New Orleans and the first three windows it opened, in order, were the hotel’s website, the TripAdvisor page for it, and its Wikipedia page. In this case, Leap2 guessed correctly. I wanted to see the hotel’s site.
- It surfaces the content in smart, accessible ways. By spinning the righthand dial down to the icon that looks like a phone book it gave me the Bing, Yelp and Foursquare listing pages for the hotel. The Bing page gives me exactly what I wanted: the address and phone number.
- Sliding down to the thought bubble/chat icon button, I could see the “buzz” on the hotel: if anyone’s talking about it on Twitter, or checking in on Foursquare or Brightkite. Sliding up to the picture icon, I got image search results from Bing, Flickr and Picasa (probably not quite the right order for me, but close).
- Scrolling all the way to the bottom of the right dial to the “+” acronym brings up the option to share your search results via email, Twitter or Facebook. The process goes smoothest if you’ve authorized Leap2 to access your Twitter and Facebook accounts.
As I mentioned, the app is not perfect. It can be amazingly on target for some things, while inconsistent on others.
- A search for “bars near Lafayette Square New Orleans” brought back some odd results. The first page suggested was Hotels.com, then HotelPlanner.com, then NileGuide, which was actually results for Jackson Square, not Lafayette. In this case, I clearly was looking for Yelp or TripAdvisor recommendations, which Leap2 didn’t connect.
- When you click on one of the website results, it automatically fills your whole screen. To go back to the default view, you use a simple downward swiping motion. Unfortunately, where you swipe is very close to the new pull-down shade notifications menu in iOS 5. So occasionally I would mistakenly bring up that menu instead of returning to the default search view of the app.
- Google Maps renders slowly. In fact, several features would be much better if they were sped up.
Overall, this app needs its speed turbocharged, and the design could use some polish — it’s a little rough compared to really well-designed apps. But I like where they’re going with it and I think there’s a great idea here.