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Froogle, directories and search clippings by SMS

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Google has introduced a free texting service that taps into its existing Froogle, phone directory, business listings databases, and even refined "clippings" from the main search engine. There's no premium to be paid by the user, over and above what it costs to send a text message. Perhaps that's because premium text services are their infancy in the USA, with carriers currently preferring to run their own promotions rather than co-operate on a billing infrastructure for third-party services. Or perhaps it's because Google is really trying not to be evil. In which case we hope we haven't put ideas into the boys heads, and really hope they haven't read articles like this. [*]. In fact, the answer seems to be depressingly predictable. The ad broker wants to squeeze its context ads into the message, if it can: "To the extent that ads can provide you with useful information, we would be likely to do that," Google's Georges Harik told Internetnews.com.

Either way, the service is quick and surprisingly broad ranging, delivering multi-part messages within a minute in our tests. You can look up word definitions, zip codes, use the calculator (although most phones have one built in), or reference factoids. As an example, Google cites G population San Francisco, which works pretty well. We tried G wealth Larry Page and received a sentence from a BBC News Online report, two fragments from Kuro5hin.org, and one that simply read "4of 4)Stanford Alumnus Larry Page (#43 at ...", which is about as useful as a one legged man in an arse-kicking competition.

Still, at least we didn't get any Movable Type Trackbacks texted back to us.

We ought to classify that as a near miss. What the service appears to have done, judging by what we see here, is skim part of the context provided by first search result, the BBC news story, and then three fragments from a single Kuro5hin posting, which is the second result. A little cleverer parsing would have discovered No.5, where we learn that "Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, both 31, hold the No.4 and No.5 spots with total wealth of $4.19 billion and $4.17 billion, more than four times their..." which would have given us an answer. That fifth search result is the first fragment with a dollar sign in it. So you can see better queries aren't unimaginable, although this depends on your faith in taxonomies and natural language parsing. But refining the SMS search must be easier than building a space escalator (and hopefully, a higher priority).

Google's SMS service is interesting for a couple of reasons. Texting is the world's most popular computer user interface. It's how most of the world communicates, too.

The second is so obvious that we wouldn't mention it at all if it wasn't in danger of being forgotten with all the recent psycho-babble about search. Search is at best a bumpy road that gets people to information, that might or might not be useful to them. It's not, in itself, a destination. Nor is "information" a special kind of stuff.

Google's mission statement, as it is for so many technology companies, is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The first two are easy - the third one is hard. So we shouldn't be surprised to discover that services like AQA in the UK seem to have caught the popular imagination: it was created by people who pay as much attention to what people really do, than to the algorithms.

Stateside readers with a mobile phone - that's the one without wires - can investigate the service here. ®

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