September 19, 2007

CONNECTING AFRICA

By Lai Kok Fung, BuzzCity CEO

In my hometown of Singapore, Africa barely makes the news and when it does the headlines are invariably bad: war, genocide, natural disasters, poverty and AIDS. But this past week, during a visit to Johannesburg, I saw a different Africa – a place of opportunity, an upwardly mobile Africa where cell phones are making a very real positive impact on people’s lives.

September 05, 2007

MOBILE SEARCH


By Hisham Isa, Vice President (Marketing)

This week the mainstream media is abuzz with rumours from the blogosphere that internet search giant Google is about to launch a “G-Phone”.

“Is the Google Phone an Apple iPhone killer?” writes Peter Cohen.

`Most definitely’ replies tech analyst Rob Enderle (as quoted by the LA Times in this article).

Imagine a free ad-driven mobile service on a handset that costs just US$100. Telecom carriers can’t be very pleased with this possibility. But how close are we to an ad-driven mobile internet?

“What’s interesting about the ads in the mobile phone is that they are twice as profitable or more than the non-mobile ads because they’re more personal” Google CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly told a conference in May.

Search engines like Yahoo! and Google have transformed and driven the growth of the fixed line internet.

But mobile search is so far a different story.

WHY HASN’T MOBILE SEARCH TAKEN OFF YET?
First of all, there’s not as much content. Early development has been driven by telecom carriers, many of which implement “walled gardens”. The carriers decide which type of content to release and make it difficult or expensive for consumers to access content outside the carrier’s portal. In addition, aside from ringtones and games, most mobile content has been re-purposed from the web.

Second, it is generally accepted that mobile devices are not research tools in the same way as PCs. Conventional internet searches yield hundreds, if not thousands of results. Computer users are accustomed to spending time to sift through the information, clicking through the first twenty or so links to find the most relevant.

Search results on a phone need to be more immediate and relevant, even to the extent of being personalised. Half a dozen pertinent results to a mobile search is ideal.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE (MOBILE SEARCH) UNIVERSE
Major players began dabbling with mobile search just a couple years ago. A popular strategy was to provide variations of “local search”, basically mimicking the Yellow Pages. This was soon followed by a “send-to-mobile” feature for addresses, maps, phone books, and reverse phone queries. By the end of last year, the US Yellow Pages finally launched their own WAP site to catch up with its imitators.

Phase II focused on location-based searches, such as “where is the nearest Pizza Hut?” Telcos and handset producers suggest that phones must be GPS enabled for searches like these, ignoring consumer demands for fewer features on their phones. In addition, the results of most location searches unfortunately yield hard-to-read maps with a beeping pointer on a screen.

Consumers want real-world references to locate. Take a lesson from pedestrians who use their phones to locate each other by taking pictures of nearby landmarks. Savvy shoppers are also snapping photos of dresses and shoes they might like to buy, followed by a picture of the store for reference.

WAP and USER-GENERATED CONTENT
The biggest driver of content on the mobile internet have so far been user-generated sites like tagtag and peperonity that enable users to create their own WAP sites for photos, ringtones, games and more. This is reminiscent of the early days of the fixed-line internet. Remember GeoCities?

In the meantime a few mobile players like Google are WAP-enabling web pages. At BuzzCity, we have two WAP-enabled search engines, both of which focus on user generated content: Wikipedia for WAP and the myGamma blog search.

THE NEXT GENERATION OF MOBILE SEARCH
The next flash point for mobile search is going to be speech recognition – still centered around finding places. Contextually relevant searches, like movies and music, are also on the way.

As the industry grows, though, I believe the search-type services that are most likely to succeed are those that best resemble the phone’s original use. A phone is at its core basically a networking tool. Search engines that deliver succinct relevant results, perhaps based on social bookmarking like del.icio.us, digg and stumbleupon, will be the most popular.

Google meanwhile is said to be using OpenMoko's (open source) platform for its G-Phone. This is good news because open source will spawn more niche applications and content for mobiles. There are other groups producing open source mobile innovations as well, like the TuxPhone, but if the rumours about the Google Phone are true, and I hope they are, the pace of change is about to quicken.