Avoiding Head Injuries and Bad Dinner Guests: The Future of Mobile Search

With new smart phones and "superphones" pelting us from all angles, we're increasingly equipped to take the internet wherever we go. As these devices evolve, so are the ways that we search the web.
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With new smart phones and "superphones" pelting us from all angles, we're increasingly equipped to take the internet with us wherever we go. As these devices evolve, so are the ways that we search the web.

Specifically, we're seeing developments in search inputs that are more fitting to a mobile device (i.e. voice and visual), than those borrowed from the PC (i.e. typing). Voice search got a boost from last week's launch of Google's NexusOne, whose major functions are voice enabled.

Google has also been working on visual search with its newly released "Goggles." This lets you take a mobile picture which is quickly matched with image databases to return information on what you're looking at. This is largely unproven but we'll hear more about it soon.

In the meantime, there's the increasingly popular discussion in press and analyst corps over "augmented reality." This overlays data on live viewfinder images so you can hold up your phone to see informational icons floating above the donut shop or historical statue you're standing in front of.

Sounds great, but it's a technology whose sex appeal is inversely proportional to its near term potential (Is there a law for that? If not, I'm claiming it now). Challenges include aggregating all of that local data, not to mention cranial trauma from pedestrian collisions.

While those issues get worked out, there have been other attempts at visual search. Some might remember the ill-fated CueCat, introduced about ten years ago. It placed codes throughout print media, which readers could scan and be taken to a related website.

The issue was too many moving parts -- translating to adoption barriers for average consumers. These included proprietary CueCat hardware, and the inclination to use it. Similar factors now stand in the way of the CueCat's younger cousin: the QR code.

Short for "quick response", they're prevalent in magazines, store signage and billboards throughout Japan. There have been efforts to get it going in the U.S. (yellow pages companies, Citysearch and Google). But in order to read QR codes, you need a compatible phone, software, and back end data, not to mention consumer awareness.

A nearer term opportunity could be bar code scanning apps available for smart phones such as iPhone, Blackberry and Android. These use the phone's camera to scan product bar codes, then pull up specs, reviews, pricing and even what nearby stores carry it.

This could involve a lesser path of resistance, as bar codes themselves are pervasive and familiar. There is also interest in price shopping at the point of purchase (over 50 percent of consumers according to Motorola).

Users standing in front of a store shelf meanwhile have greater buying intent than those researching products on a home PC. This translates to ad dollars for search engines, app developers, or anyone that can help retailers move products.

One revenue model could be a bid marketplace where advertisers bid on scans the same way they currently bid on keywords in Google. This goes back to thinking of these scans as just another form of search -- one that could demand higher premiums.

We've already seen apps like RedLaser and ShopSavvy grow in a recession dampened holiday season. All those people you'll soon see hunched over their phones at Best Buy don't have some sort of weird retail fetish; just trying to get a good scan on that blu-ray player.

Also, be warned: Another way to put these apps to good use is getting specs and prices on gifted items, such as wine. Transparency for the tyranny of cheap dinner guests, at last.

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