A Google Seduction

I had about five other topics in queue to write about today... until Google seduced my iPhone. Word circulated quickly yesterday that iPhone users going to the portal now got their own mobile Safari Web app. I saw several off-handed ho-hums from the blogopshere, and figured Google was just tossing more alpha version spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. File under "check it out sometime."

But I am the kind of guy who had offbeat romantic tastes. When my fellow high school classmates were gushing over Farrah Fawcett, I was singling out that cute Terri Garr in "Young Frankenstein" and Kathleen Quinlan in "Lifeguard." When the '80s male veered towards Madonna or Cindy Crawford, I was a lot more interested in the Go-Gos. So, sue me, I sorta fell in love yesterday. Sorry to disappoint the fashionable skeptics, but Google's new entryway for iPhones is a nice piece of work on several levels that suggests where other mobile development might head, both on and off the iPhone interface.

I may have offbeat tastes in women, but I am as lazy a lover as Groucho Marx ever was. She has to be accessible. Google's Web app interface reminds me of Facebook's tabbed approach to the iPhone, with top-line buttons for the Home search box (with Web, Image, Local and News verticals included) Gmail, Calendar, Reader, and More button that offers up direct access to your Google Docs, Notebook, the voice search Goog-411 service, Google News and more.

First off, Google for iPhone excels at speed and efficiency, and the app shows how much this matters in pulling a user in. They use an AJAX-like approach that requires minimal page reloads (which are torture on mobile). Granted, I have been testing this on the home office WiFi connection (I don't get out much), but dancing across the top line buttons brought each service up instantly. Likewise, I can run across the verticalized results on a search in the main window with the same speed.

Apparently, the designers of this app had speed as a main goal, and they are on target. In using scores of mobile phones over the past four years, it has become clear to me that snappiness in the response of both the network and the application translates directly into increased use. The old saw on the Web used to be that for every additional click a Web site required, expect to lose half your audience. That goes double for mobile, I suspect, and I think that the expectation of a lag for every operation on a phone dissuades many users from drilling beneath the surface of many WAP sites and applications.

Once I am signed into my account, the Local search vertical automatically brings up localized results and a call button to the service, all neatly formatted. And the search suggestions from the Google Web and Toolbar experience are here as well, although they often collide with the iPhone's pop-up keyboard. The missing element is mapping. Ideally, we would want the results to tie into the superb Google maps that are already embedded into the iPhone deck. Regardless, they have made Web search extremely flexible and easy just by surfacing and accelerating the major functions. This is what mobile application development should be about but too often isn't.

Arguably, much of the functionality in the iPhone app has been available to mobile users from Google for a while, but pulling all the pieces into one very efficient package does precisely what Google wants; it effectively merchandises its other services.

The Gmail implementation is superb, for instance. Not only do I get the full functionality of the Web application in a mobile format, but it opens Word or PDF attachments for viewing much more effectively than the iPhone's own email client. Similarly, the Google docs and Reader apps, which I otherwise ignore, are so clean and easy to use here that they invite me to start using them. I even installed Picasa so I could access my photos more easily within a singular interface. Like a good relationship, you should be discovering more good qualities in your mate over time, or at least cultivating new bedroom moves.

The longstanding mobile fantasy of AOL, Google, MSN and Yahoo has been to make a mobile app that effectively leverages the existing Web relationship the publisher already has with the user and then use the mobile app to deepen the involvement into more services.

In most cases, the portal extensions I have seen do a good job of the first part of the equation but fail at the second. Like well-coiffed singles bar denizens, they are better at one-night stands. Yahoo Go, for instance, is just too cluttered for me, although it gives me my email and good search. AOL's new WAP page is cleaner and more inviting, but its services are more oriented toward searching than functional applications.

At the risk of over-praising Google (which seems to be a digital sin these days) it seems to me that the integration of functions on the new iPhone app comes closest to the second part of a good mobile portal strategy. Its simplicity, speed, compactness and integration make me want to put more of my life into the neat package.

Now obviously, an iPhone Web app works at an unfair advantage when compared to most handset interfaces. The touch screen, screen real estate, and simple mechanics of Web 2.0 mechanics of the interface make it easier to design speed and simplicity into this format than the more challenging handset. And there are technical problems. I keep getting weird screen flickers during some operations, and for some reason most of the Google App pages seem to be in a constant state of loading. The lack of mapping is a real missing link as well.

But the fact of the matter is that Google's iPhone app reeled me in. I went deeper and spent more time with this portal simply because it convinced me at page one that it was responsive and substantial, good looking but also smart. Which I think means that a good mobile app should work something like sexual seduction.

Yeah, I just gotta get out more.

Tags: mobile
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