Yesterday I stumbled across a high-level piece on the state of mobile, with a heavy dose of local, from Investors Business Daily. The angle is Google and Yahoo! vs. the nervous carriers. It’s a nice overview but there’s not much new there.
Google, Yahoo! and, to varying degrees, AOL, MSN and Ask are all working on several wireless fronts at once: mobile web, SMS and voice/DA. Meanwhile carriers are doing deals with firms like JumpTap, Tellme, Action Engine and Medio Systems to develop their own mobile search and ad offerings. (Tellme’s deal with Cingular/AT&T is strictly for automated directory assistance right now.)
More complicated than the Internet, there are a bunch of constituencies or categories in the mobile ecosystem:
- Wireless carriers (see also directory assistance)
- Handset makers (e.g., Motorola, Nokia, Palm)
- Major search engines/portals
- Independent application providers (e.g., InfoSpace, 4Info, UpSnap)
- Publishers and content providers (e.g., News orgs, Citysearch, yellow pages)
- Technology companies/vendors (e.g., Voicebox, Action Engine)
- Directory assistance (DA) “wholesalers” and “retailers” (e.g., InfoNXX, Jingle Networks, carriers)
As I and many others have remarked in the past, the carriers are avoiding direct deals with Google and Yahoo because they fear the “dumb pipe” scenario. However, handset makers like T-mobile, Motorola and Nokia have done deals with the search engines. (Nokia has been the most aggressive of the OEMs in the local segment as well.)
Meanwhile the carriers are busy doing deals with white label vendors to boost their own search and content capabilities. But they face three significant challenges:
- They don’t have email and Internet relationships with users
- They don’t have the same brand equity around search/content
- They must develop a superior user experience to be competitive long term
To the third point, as Microsoft and others have found in online search you can’t simply show up with something that’s comparable or “as good.” It has to be better to gain share, and even if it’s better that may still not be enough.
Yes, mobile is wide open at the moment. But carriers are already at a disadvantage because of the first two bullets immediately above. There’s no room for parity then; they must be obviously better than Google, Yahoo and the other engines.
But it’s not clear that they can be. JumpTap, Action Engine and Medio, three of the white-label vendors, would of course disagree with me.
Enter voice-based mobile search. Putting aside “point and search” for the time being, directory assistance/voice is an interesting wild card in the whole mobile scenario. The phone is fundamentally a voice-driven device rather than a mini-mobile computer, although that may change over time.
I’ve written previously that DA has been a surrogate for true mobile-local search. And “free DA” providers like Jingle Networks (1800-Free-411) and 1800-San Diego have started to put real pressure on traditional DA’s cash cow.
But these and other similar services are not truly mobile local search at the moment. They’re ad-supported versions of “what city, what listing?” Jingle has said in Q1 it will roll out category search. And the now-defunct InfreeDA was about to launch a category search offering before the company exhausted its funds.
A successor to traditional DA, once true voice-enabled mobile search hits the market (Tellme-Cingular is the beginning) it represents a potentially powerful application that could be the volume winner in mobile. And there the carriers might have something of an advantage given their DA legacies. (I had a briefing yesterday with a company that demonstrated some very impressive voice technology – quite a bit more flexible than I’ve seen before.)
But voice is not an island and a truly useful application will need to be “voice-in” with a text or other output. PocketThis is an example in the current “enhanced DA” arena.
Voice-in doesn’t require “triple tapping” or the awkwardness of keystrokes, while “text-out” allows users to capture and store numbers. But voice isn’t the killer mobile app, by any stretch – not yet anyway.
In addition to their WAP, SMS and downloadable applications, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have all made hires and investments in voice (especially MSFT). Google owns a number of voice-related patents. And, most recently, Google’s alleged experiment with an automated mobile-local search/DA service was “outed.”
877 GOOG 411 (1 877 466 4411); also 877-520-FIND yields the same service.
So given that disclosure I’ll make a few comments. (Google won’t confirm that this number is associated with the company.)
The service prompts you, after “city and state” to conduct a category search by “type of business” (first) or “business name” (second). After selecting type of business, you can search by street name or intersection.
You can hear “details” and be connected directly (PPCall opportunity) or receive a text message that can be captured and saved in your personal phone directory (another ad/offer opportunity: PPText).
There are many awkward and imperfect things about the service right now, and it’s probably not as good as Yellow Pages Group’s Hello Yellow (from CallGenie). But it’s an interesting and promising start for Google (or whatever company might be operating the service).
To go back to the multi-modal functionality, once I’ve got a list of choices in a category I need some mechanism to help me make a decision. One way would be to sort by highest rated businesses (assuming there are available ratings). Right now only Ask’s new mobile offering permits that in a mobile-web browsing context. But this is much better as a visual function. There’s more information I can take in visually than auditorily (if that’s a word). Perhaps if I could say “sort by rating,” that would go a long way to accomplishing this goal in a pure voice context.
Regardless, the service is free.
There are several existing and hypothetical ways to monetize a voice-driven multi-modal service as I suggested earlier: PPCall, PPText, sponsorships/CPM ads. For example, CBS has become a Jingle sponsor. But one of the issues in PPCall for Google in such a service might be disclosure that a top listing is an ad. (I don’t believe that Hello Yellow discloses that its top listings, which are relevant to the voice query, are ads.) Non-disclosure would be contrary to Google’s modus operandi online and potentially something that would raise concerns among users and industry watchdogs. However, there are ultimately a variety of ways to address the issue.
Even though it’s still extremely early in mobile search, the pace of development and competition are gaining rapid momentum.
For the search engines, portals and other online publishers the challenge will be to leverage their existing user relationships with a very solid and usable mobile version of their online offerings initially. For the carriers, if they continue to shun the big Internet brands, the challenge will be to overcome those existing relationships with a superior user experience.
Voice could be a significant part of a winning mobile search equation. But it’s not, by itself, the solution.