Searching for the Right Handheld Option

Increasingly, users are working with cell phones and PDAs to access data. Because finding desired information can be a challenge, companies such as America Online, Google and Yahoo developed search services specifically geared to mobile users. “Mobile search is an area of keen interest to both users and vendors,” stated Matthew Brown, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

The search vendors, who have been engaged in fierce competition, view mobile search as a new, potentially lucrative, revenue source. Currently, there are more than two billion mobile phone users worldwide, which is more than three times the number of PC users. “The challenge for the search vendors has been to transform the search experience found on a PC to a mobile device,” noted Steve Arnold, president of Arnold Information Technology, a market research firm specializing in search tech.

The task is not easy. The tiny screens found on PDAs and smartphones do not allow users to download full Web pages. Compounding the issue is network bandwidth: While multi-Mbps transmission speeds are found with services like cable modems and digital subscriber lines, wireless networks support only 100 — or maybe a few hundred — Kbps connections.

Shrinking Content to a Manageable Size

To solve these problems, search vendors turned to a couple of options. Standards such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) have emerged that enable carriers to shrink Web pages down to more manageable sizes. AOL and Yahoo rely on WAP for their mobile services, and Google has implemented a slight variation, dubbed the wireless markup language (WML). Since it doesn’t support images, searching for pictures isn’t possible with this service.

Another alternative is coupling Short Message System (SMS) and search technologies. SMS is a text-only service that takes messages, which can be 160 characters or less, from sending devices, then places them in a central short message center, and finally forwards them to the destination when a user comes online.

Since there are no graphics, SMS allows mobile users to work with information that can be more easily displayed on their small screens. Another advantage is that it usually takes only a few seconds to initiate a search via text message, as opposed to more than 15 seconds needed to start up a WAP browser.

Another hurdle search suppliers must overcome is providing users who are not working with a mouse or a keyboard with a simple way to enter queries. In response, the vendors have developed various shortcuts to speed up data entry, for example, typing in a “w” and a ZIP code may generate a local weather forecast.

The shortcuts are becoming more elaborate. Mobile content provider 4Info lets U.S. cell phone subscribers enter a string of five numbers to generate a text message with its information directory. The shortcut recognizes a variety of inquiries and is designed to return SMS results in less than a minute.

No Longer a Two-Step Process

Vendors are also trying to make multi-step searches easier to complete by allowing users to get updated or additional information with fewer keystrokes. A growing number of search results allow users to examine previous returns without re-typing the original query. Also, Yahoo’s SMS search results include URL links to the firm’s Mobile Internet service, so users can point and click to get more information about their inquiries.

As these advances have become available, search vendors have tried to use them in a growing variety of ways. Mobile users now can search for weather reports, stock quotes, business addresses, WiFi hotspot finders, daily horoscopes, dictionary definitions and the locations of various merchants.

While advances have been made, the technology is far from a panacea. “The mobile user experience still leaves a lot to be desired,” Arnold told TechNewsWorld. “It is still not easy to enter information or find needed data.”

Addressing a Number of Integration Needs

In response, search vendors are trying to integrate their local and mobile search functions. “In most cases, mobile users are searching for spur-of-the-moment data, like a local restaurant or directions,” said Whit Andrews, research vice president at Gartner. Vendors’ local search capabilities are not as well developed as their traditional search functions, so they have to improve those services before integrating them with mobile search.

The Holy Grail of mobile search would be integrating commerce and mobile search applications. A few such services are already available. For instance 4Info, which offers various mobile services, has a deal with Fandango that allows people who call up for movie times to hit “Reply 1” to immediately buy tickets from the online service. However, “at the moment, most domestic users do not feel comfortable using their phone to purchase goods online,” Arnold pointed out.

In addition to technical challenges, the vendors must answer questions about their business models. The search suppliers do not want to charge for these services, but cellular carriers have been tacking on additional fees. “In the mobile search market, a lot of business models are being tested, but it is not clear which will be viable,” Brown told TechNewsWorld.

Consequently, at the moment, it is vendors rather than consumers who are doing most of the searching.

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