As search continues to evolve and converge with mobile, new uses for search are increasingly intriguing, and some feel particularly game-changing. This is the case for Siri, a new personal assistant app currently available for the iPhone.
I've been playing with Siri for a few weeks now (it launched in early February). While its functionality is still somewhat limited, its potential seems amazing. What's more intriguing, however, is what this app portends for the future of mobile commerce and advertising.
But first: Siri.
This cool little app is based on technology called CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes), originally commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense and developed at SRI International. It uses voice recognition technology licensed from Nuance (you can also choose to type in your queries) to enable you to make action-oriented queries into your iPhone like "find me a good French restaurant for two tonight." Using your iPhone's location coordinates, it will search Yelp for positive reviews of restaurants in your area, find a reservation for the most popular one via OpenTable and ask if you'd like to confirm a reservation. Once you've confirmed the time, Siri will book the reservation for you.
Over time, Siri remembers your favorites, preferences (i.e., moderately priced restaurants vs. expensive ones) and habits. As you establish your profile, including a default credit card number, Siri can also make transactions for you. For instance, you could ask Siri to find you a good romantic comedy movie for after dinner. Siri will check with RottenTomatos for reviews, search MovieTickets.com for the best rated film available near your restaurant and present you with your options. If you confirm the available option, Siri will go ahead and buy two tickets on your behalf.
Though best optimized for the iPhone 3GS, it works just fine on my older version iPhone. And Siri can book you a taxi, search for a local business carrying what you might be looking for, check for a range of events and secure tickets via TicketMaster, and more. Right now, Siri has relationships with more than a dozen partners, but the company promises that more are on the way. And the app is free, as Siri intends to make money each time you complete a transaction via its service.
While the utility of this app is clear (I've begun to think of Siri as something approximating a real person, which, I grant you, may not be so healthy), what's more of a revelation to me is what Siri portends for the future of search and commerce on smart phones. The whole concept of just-in-time purchasing -- that is, sourcing and procuring that which you may want or need at just the moment you choose -- will increasingly require new strategies for integrating with apps on mobile platforms.
While Google, Yahoo and Bing make fortunes by matching search queries with pay-per-click ads that mainly drive to a destination Web site, the future seems to lie in matching a need or desire with the instant ability to both pay for and acquire that which you seek. Apple has already achieved this with its iTunes and App Stores, as have the knock-offs at Apple's newly emergent competitors. Add in the new tablet devices (Apple iPad, Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, among others) primed for this kind of just-in-time purchasing, and it's easy to imagine a revolution in the ways in which people search and purchase. (Not to mention in therapeutic services addressing the coming spike in impulse control issues...)
What this means for online display advertising and PPC ads remains to be seen, but change is certainly in the air. As Tim O'Reilly put it recently in a blog post:
"Isn't that after all the goal of advertising? To cause a transaction. So why not do away with the intermediate step of sending someone to a website for more information? Especially with the limited screen real estate on the phone, there isn't really room for the contextual text advertising that made Google its billions. Interstitial or popup ads are intrusive and unwelcome. But how much search activity on the phone is tied to commerce already? Find a restaurant nearby and make a reservation. Why not pay as well? Point Google Googles at a bottle of wine you enjoyed at that restaurant, and have a few bottles more show up on your doorstep."
Which leaves this last, nagging question: How will you optimize your e-commerce for this coming revolution? And what will be the enabling technologies and services to make that optimization possible? (I think I'll check with my assistant.)