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26 Oct 2007 14:28
It is interesting why so few of us use one of the breakthroughs of recent years: the ability to search the web from wherever we are with a cellphone. This ought to be hugely empowering, enabling us to answer any question from wherever we happen to be instead of having to wait until we are within reach of a computer.
If cellphones provided a good web experience, we would probably use them at home as well, since the phone would already be close to our hands and the computer may need to be activated in another room.
There are a number of reasons why this hasn’t happened and why it may be about to change.
Why? Because the user experience is still not good enough. Cellphones were designed to make telephone calls. No one had any idea at the beginning that they would be as popular as they now are, let alone that they would house about 60 different functions, of which browsing the web is merely one.
As screens got bigger to make words, photos and videos easier to view, keyboards shrank, making it more difficult to key in the words you need for a search. On some phones you still have to make several thumb movements to get the cursor into the search box. Crazy. Small wonder mobile browsing is a minority sport, way behind SMSing, phone conversations and alarm calls in our priorities.
Now things are changing. Cellphones are about to experience a rerun of the web wars of a few years ago that ended with Microsoft winning the browser battle (with Internet Explorer snuffing out Netscape) and Google triumphing in search. Hopefully, the best user experience will win (but don’t bet too much on it).
Everything is up for grabs in the smartphone market where London-based Symbian is the dominant supplier of operating systems (with 70% of the market), pursued by Microsoft, Apple, Linux and others. Opera from Norway is the market leader in browsers, but facing fresh competition from Apple’s Safari on the iPhone, Nokia’s own open-source offering and, soon, Google as well. Yahoo! has greatly improved its search experience. It needed to as Google will soon launch its improved mobile search software to lay claim to the gold mine of advertising-backed search.
I have tried Opera before without being over-impressed, but I have now had it installed on my Nokia N80 as an alternative to Nokia’s pre-installed browser. Opera claims it is the only mobile browser with access to the whole web rather than a WAP-only version. It was impressive, taking between five and seven seconds to access a site and then half that time to move within it: not brilliant by broadband standards, but good for a cellphone.
Opera’s founder, Jonvon Tetzchner, claims that Opera compresses data by enough to save users between 80% and 90% if they are on a pay-as-you-go tariff and accounts for more than 50% of mobile data usage. It is the browser of choice for the likes of Motorola, Sony Ericsson and HTC and, if you have a Nintendo Wii, it will enable you to watch sites such as YouTube on your television set (if that’s your bag). It gave good interactive access to my Guardian, BBC, Flickr, Facebook and email sites, including photo uploading.
Yahoo!‘s oneSearch is a significant improvement with speedy search and a “carousel” that enables users to move from news to instant email, weather reports or (excellent) driving instructions at the click of a thumb. When Google follows Apple with its new product, the mobile web will be bursting with new ideas. Consumers will be in for a treat—as long as one of them doesn’t see all the others off and establish a monopoly.—Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007
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