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The iPhone and Local Search

By: 13 June 2007

Summary

The New York Times today continues the ongoing discussion of the iPhone’s potential as a game changer and its possible shortcomings. It brings up the challenge that could arise in getting consumers accustomed to a radically different interface that doesn’t include the tactile control over a mechanical keypad. There are a number of other shortcomings that have been tossed around elsewhere, including scratch resistance, lack of expandable memory and replaceable battery. But looking past these, the big picture is that the device will be revolutionary in the standards and expectations it sets for mobile search and entertainment.

Analysis

The iPhone’s touch screen is a double-edged sword. Though mostly positive in that it is central to the device’s radical and elegant design, it will be less glamorous than portrayed in commercials and jumbotron displays at Macworld once it starts bouncing around in pockets, purses and scratch-prone realities of mobile users’ lives.

One iPhone television ad starts out by saying “There’s never been an iPod that can do this … ” followed by a demonstration of the Apple signature bodiless hand, flipping through media selections, watching a movie and finally making a phone call. My first reaction was that there’s also never been an iPod that lets you watch movies with fingerprints all over it.

There are a few other well-publicized deficiencies projected such as a lack of expandable memory and replaceable battery (much like the iPod). There is also the challenge in letting in third-party development (which the iPod enjoyed) of software add-ons for the carrier deck, due to the control and security characteristic of the mobile device environment. (This was possibly alleviated by the announcement this week that third-party apps could be designed for the Safari browser, which will be embedded in the phone and available through the device’s WAP capabilities explained further below.)

Add to these, the $500 to $600 price tag, which is out of reach for a sizable portion of the market that is most interested and accustomed to mobile communication and entertainment (teens and twenty-somethings).

On the Bright Side …

Regardless of the above deficiencies, Apple will get it right in the third or fourth generations of the product. Look at today’s iPod compared with the first generation (which I’m still hanging on to). Furthermore, looking past the possible shortcomings even in the iPhone’s first generation, the big picture is that it will be revolutionary in changing consumer expectations of the quality standards and possibilities with mobile entertainment and search.

For a preview of the mobile local search possibilities, see one of the aforementioned Apple ads (here) that demonstrates the ability to go from watching a movie to looking for a restaurant, to calling the restaurant a seamless mobile local search experience that no one yet has been able to master.

After these expectations are set, other device manufacturers will have to follow suit and we will have entered a new era in mobile device functionality, mobile local search and location-based services. Some mobile device OEMs have already begun to change longstanding design paradigms, partly out of inspiration, but mostly in anticipation of the marketplace expectations the iPhone will set.

Most of all, the integration of the Safari browser mentioned above could unlock a new way of doing things in mobile search. If the browser performs well, it will take the place of the carrier deck as the primary search interface. Given that the Safari will welcome third-party application development and open access to the mobile Web, it will also open up all the consumer choice and innovation in mobile search we’ve seen flourish in online search.

This has erstwhile been stifled in the mobile environment by a combination of the control carriers exert on the search apps that work on the carrier deck and the inferiority of the WAP browsing experience on smaller screens. The iPhone’s larger screen, sleeker interface and better browsing capabilities of Safari could sidestep this challenge and lead to more innovation and application development for the mobile browser. This could be an exciting change, and one that the mobile local search world has been waiting for.

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Related: More on the iPhone’s implications for local search in the previous post, following the device’s initial unveiling.



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