The Mobile-Local Redundancy

I stopped by Citibank on my lunch break and ran into an old friend. "Are you still doing computers?" he asked.

"I'm in the Internet business," I replied. That was a quick enough response given the circumstances, even if it doesn't tell the whole story. I never once thought I worked in the computer industry. The Internet is omnipresent and device-agnostic; confining it to computers would be like saying cars can only drive on racetracks.

The interaction brought to mind a recent post by Dallas Mavericks owner and technology pioneer Mark Cuban on his site, Blog Maverick, entitled, "The end of an era - The Desktop PC." He writes, "The desktop is boring. All the fun is happening with portable devices. Phones, iPods, gaming consoles, PDAs, digital cameras, even hard drives and flash drives. All the good stuff is coming in small packages."

Search engines are increasingly realizing this. Last week's debut of Google Mobile - Local Search inspired another search thought question: Is all mobile local?



Let's start with the converse. All local search is not mobile. When you're at work looking for the nearest post office, movie theater, or tapas bar, accessing a search engine or local search site (such as Citysearch or Switchboard) from a trusty desktop computer will do the job.

Yet what happens when you're mobile? What about when you're out of the office searching from your mobile phone, BlackBerry, Palm, or hybrid phone/organizer/wireless Internet device? At that instance, are mobile and local redundant?

Mobile and local will never be entirely redundant. One night, you'll be out drinking, conversation will turn to the movie "Groundhog Day," and someone will ask who played Ned Ryerson, the annoying old friend of Bill Murray's character. A quick search on Google Mobile - Local, and you'll know it was Stephen Tobolowsky. Your friend who thought it was Wallace Shawn will owe you a beer; score one for the mobile Internet.

Yet more frequently, Google Mobile - Local will help you find a bar, get directions, look up a restaurant to visit beforehand, find the number of an old friend you just recalled who lives in the area, and map the nearest drugstore so you can take care of your halitosis.

Over the next several years, people won't use Mobile - Local to make an online purchase; they'll use it to find stores. They won't purchase airline tickets; they'll find transportation options to and from the hotel. It will facilitate spontaneity. Just as people use mobile phones to talk with people they might not otherwise bother calling, they'll use mobile search to look for people, places, and things they might not have otherwise thought to look for at the moment. We'll save marketing opportunities from targeting mobile spontaneity for another article.

In the here and now, innovations layered on top of Google Maps, both from Google and other sources, reinforce that maps and local search will soon become key drivers of mobile Internet usage. Just look at the Google Maps interface where the map scales to the screen. This is much more important for mobile devices, where some screens are several times the size of others, than it is for desktops.

In Google Labs, Ride Finder is one of the many up-and-coming features in the works that bears out this concept of maps going mobile. The site allows you to track transportation for hire, currently for 10 U.S. cities; each available vehicle appears as a colored dot on a map, with different colors for different fleets. Yet if you live and work in a major U.S. city where there are sizeable fleets of private transport and you need a ride, you'll either stand outside and put your thumb in the air or call a car service.

Yet what if you go outside, it's rush hour, you can't seem to find a single free car passing by, and your flight to the client meeting leaves in an hour? Or what if you're in a city not known for its myriad distinguishable car fleets and you need to get from the Starbucks where you've been camping out to the next meeting? It's when you're on the road and on the run that you'll find real value in a service like this.

My colleague Erik Mednis sent over a link to a site that's a cross between Google Maps and Craigslist. Developed by Paul Rademacher, a DreamWorks Animation technical lead with no affiliation to Google or Craigslist, the site plots Craigslist real estate listings on Google Maps. Listings display the title, address, contact information, and, when available, photos.

This is useful as a desktop application, since house-hunting is often enough a planned activity. Yet imagine, when you're out looking, if you could plot apartments and open houses in the area? The value of this service skyrockets.

Mobile search is still in its infancy, but even Dell, practically a metonym for personal computers, is branching out into handheld devices and consumer electronics. Many industries - including telecommunications, advertising, technology, publishing, and retail - are anxious to inject this mobile baby with growth hormones. The search players are readying themselves for the mobile shift, along with the local shift.

After awhile, it's hard to tell the difference.

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