Commentary

Google Quietly Departs Feature Phone Era: Shutters SMS Search

Cellphones-BThis is a good day to wax nostalgic about multi-tap keypads and formerly massive 2-inch flip phone screens. Remember those wonderful days when even the smallest text message required machine-gun-fire skills and a strange acquired reflex for how many taps converted a letter into a number? Back in the day we used to have to do mobile Web searches by multi-tapping keywords via SMS and hoping for very specific solutions. And we liked it.

And now it’s over -- at least insofar as Google is concerned. Over the weekend the company quietly discontinued its longstanding SMS search service. Users can no longer send keywords the SMS to get local movie times or word definitions or any of the stuff that settled bar bets back in the day. This was an unannounced discontinuation, although a Google staffer did comment upon it on Google’s product forums when asked. According to Jessica S., “closing products always involves tough choices, but we do think very hard about each decision and its implications for our users. Streamlining our services enables us to focus on creating beautiful technology that will improve people’s lives.“

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Because text search was such a distraction? They couldn’t pull a few people off of that Google Wallet project that still keeps flopping around waiting for a hopelessly convoluted and conflicted and consumer disinterested payments infrastructure to figure all of this out? Oh, but now I am getting a little nasty. Everybody knows how the push to mobile payments is really all about the consumer and what they really want me, isn’t it? Whoops, there I go again.

Ironically and mysteriously, Google is maintaining a whole host of other SMS services, including the ability to check your calendar by text, update your blog, send free messages through Gmail and through Google voice. I’m guessing that these are services had no hopes of monetizing in any substantial way anyway -- unlike search, which Google surely wants to push over to the larger smartphone canvas.

SMS search is something more than a relic, however. In many ways it was a pioneer. This is where Google and other search engines experimented with more highly targeted “answers” rather than “results.” It was among the first of the mobile services that grasped the unique circumstances of mobility and understood that relevance was not just an added feature but an imperative. In some respects, much of mobile media is still catching up.

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