Looking Back On The Future Of Mobile

Everyone's had visions for the future of mobile, and now that the buzz on mobile marketing is back again, it's a good time to do a spot check on my own prognosticating on mobile search.

The timing's especially relevant for me, as I've finally joined the ranks of mobile Web surfers in earnest, with a recent upgrade to a smartphone (namely the Samsung SCH-i760 from Verizon). As I started surfing and searching, accessing Google's mobile portal and downloading Yahoo Go, it brought back memories of a column I wrote in April 2005, "The Mobile-Local Redundancy," which, for the record, is the only MediaPost column to ever reference the brilliant character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. More on that in a minute.

The 2005 column laid out what to expect for mobile, focusing on how central local search would be. I wrote, "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."



Nearly three years after writing that, I find the prediction has aged well over time. I'll focus on two examples.

The first involves searching for flight updates. If you enter a flight in Google from a PC (I've been using a random example of AA 28 in my tests), it tells you if the flight's on schedule, with departure and arrival times and a link to check the status at The same search on Google Mobile provides even more details, noting the flight's arrival gate,  that it departed five minutes early and should land three minutes early. Then there's a toll-free number for American Airlines, which you can click to call. All of this is displayed in a few dozen characters in just seven lines of text. As an added bonus, the airport abbreviations in Google Mobile are hyperlinked, and clicking them displays the airport weather conditions.

The extra information's especially helpful on a mobile device. as it's more crucial to view everything that matters up front. With Yahoo, the contrast is even more striking. A normal Web search on "AA 28" brings up a link to check the flight's status, but there's nothing specific displayed on the search results page. Yet searching with Yahoo Go, one of my favorite mobile services I've tried lately, the results quickly bring up the status and arrival time of the flight and the weather conditions in the arrival city.

All of this shows just one simple example of how mobile search can build on local search and make it even more efficient on the new devices. I wouldn't be surprised if some elements of mobile search were then incorporated to improve Web search. Meanwhile, on the Web, there was an ad for lighting in Yahoo and bras in Google, but there weren't ads in either's mobile search. Soon enough, you'll see ads tied to the destination city there.

The other vision I discussed in 2005 for mobile was one of serendipity -- being able to instantly search for things just because you could. I described one scenario: "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. [Run] a quick search on Google Mobile and you'll know it was Stephen Tobolowsky."

A similar scenario led to the first moment of mobile search giddiness I felt when using the new phone. Last weekend, grabbing Chinese food for lunch a half hour after getting the phone, my wife Cara and I were commenting on the Muzak renditions of late '80s and early '90s pop ballads that played overhead.  They reminded me of the awkward slow dances at the bar mitzvahs I went to in middle school, and I was trying to think of the Billy Joel song that was always played at the end of the night.

I sheepishly smiled as I pulled out the Samsung to google 'billy joel discography,' and I found the answer on Starpulse, the first link. Ironically, the song I forgot was "Time to Remember." In that moment, where I not only instantly found an answer to a nagging question but also stumbled on my next column idea (assuming I could remember it), I felt how indispensible mobile search would be.  

So how quickly will mobile search usage take off? EMarketer predicts that the number of U.S. mobile search users will nearly double, from 28.8 million in 2008 to 55.8 million in 2011, while mobile search ad revenues will climb nearly fifteen-fold in that time (frpm $48.1 million to $714 million). This year, mobile search should bring in less than 0.5% of paid search revenues, rising to 4.4% in three years.

Even with the small market share, mobile search means even more to the user. The searches are more likely to be location- and time-sensitive, and given the limitations of mobile devices -- from their keyboards and keypads to slower speeds -- the extra effort on behalf of the searcher needs to be met with extra relevance from the search engines, and also the marketers.

I wrote in another column in August 2006 that search may represent only 5% of a consumer's Internet usage, "but it's the 5% that matters most to advertisers who want to reach him." In 2011, mobile search spending may only represent 5% of search spending, but that in turn may be the 5% that matters most for those consumers.

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