In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, EU based mobile carriers (+ Cingular) are reportedly contemplating creating a mobile search and advertising infrastructure to compete with Google and Yahoo!
The conventional wisdom has historically been that the carriers need to own the mobile customer relationship and get a major chunk of coming mobile ad revenue or risk becoming “dumb pipes,” as mobile voice and data are commoditized. White label mobile search companies like JumpTap and Medio (and soon others) have been selling “against Google” using these themes. However, Sprint not long ago announced a major partnership with Microsoft, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom.
I also said previously that there is a potential partnership scenario between carriers and Internet search engines:
An alternative approach to developing your own engine/paid-search platform would be to partner with Google or Yahoo! and take a cut of ad revenue. But some would argue that makes you dependent on G, Y! or M and gives you limited bargaining power.
But that may be the “damned if you don’t” part. The argument goes: You don’t want to be dependent on a third party for your revenues. Quigo CEO Mike Yavonditte recently said to me — he used to be with AltaVista “back in the day” — that the day that AltaVista decided to monetize with Overture, rather than pursue its own PPC platform, is the day AltaVista effectively died.
The “damned if you do” part is: Carriers don’t have the brand or the capability to really do mobile search as well as the Internet incumbents and get traction. In other words, users will blow by their search and go right to Google and Yahoo!
As I’ve said many times, in order to compete with established search brands and user behavior (which is admittedly not yet established in mobile) you have to be MUCH BETTER. That’s the asserted value proposition of the white-label mobile search vendors — that they are much better that what Google and Yahoo! are offering the mobile user. But I’m skeptical that the carriers can in fact deliver on that promise.
The only way I see the carriers trumping Google, Yahoo! or MSFT is an “integrated,” “multi-modal” play. Google, for its part, has to break out multi-modality into four separate mobile products: The 877-520-Find (unconfirmed) DA-like service, downloadable application, text and WAP-based search. Although the DA product allows “answers” to be received as text.
Carriers need to combine experiences in an integrated approach that uses voice navigation as a centerpiece of information retrieval. They need to use voice + text and some degree of personalization in the near term to create a dramatically better user experience. Voice becomes the primary input, with the keypad as an alternative. Text-to-speech is an output (maybe), but the primary output is text (with the ability to save to contacts). Mainstream mobile Internet adoption will come later, but voice should be navigational there too.
Search also should be a single way to retrieve any content on the device, plus mobile Internet content.
A “me too” mobile search approach by the carriers isn’t going to succeed. They need to think bigger and more holistically about the user experience and, most importantly, build a better mobile search mousetrap.