Developers finger Google's text service

Cheaper than 411. So who cuts the cake?

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Analysis When The New York Times leaked Google's intentions to create a branded mobile phone handset earlier this year, executives were furious, and heads rolled. Incredibly, the outrage wasn't synthetic. Only in a backwater like California - where the entrepreneurial, technological and social awareness of mobile phones lags slightly behind Cambodia and Albania - could such a caper be viewed as either original or posing some commercial merit.

(Nike is just one of several companies that had toyed with, and rejected, the idea of a branded phone. The reasons are obvious: in most of the world, users see phones as a fashion items, and change them frequently - often more than once a year. So this year's cool brand can quickly become next year's mullet.)

Now, thanks to a combination of a skunkworks project within Google, and an enterprising Java developer, Google has done much to close the gap. Last week Google launched an alert service that does a few special kinds of searches cheaply and very well. Directory lookups and word definitions are beamed back within seconds. It takes advantage of the world's most popular human interface, and the world's most used communications network, which happen to be the same thing: SMS. It's also free, for now; you don't pay any more than you do for a text message, although how long this happy state of affairs lasts isn't certain. As it's primarily an ad broker, Google wants to find a way to squirt ads into the messages - last week the project manager said that they were wondering how, not if, to implement this.

(There are other searches it doesn't do so well, such as accessing the main Google search engine, but that doesn't detract from Google's achievement here. Premium data services - of which number lookup is just one - are often cited as a potential multimillion dollar business. You have to ask for how much longer. At 10 cents a message, it's already cheaper than a 411 query dialed through your operator. For example, T-Mobile generously gives you three for $1.25)

GooglME screenshot

Now Java developer Erik Thauvin has created a tiny, 5kb MIDP application that puts the familiar G right onto your phone. GooglME is a trivial application, but it makes the already speedy process of making a Google SMS query even faster: choose Froogle, Google search, word definition or a blank search. Of course the replies come back as SMS. But it does offer a hint of the possibilities that Google itself must surely be aware of, if it isn't to be outpaced by third party developers. On a Series 60 phone, with the applet already running (why ever shut it down?) we found it was simply three actions, and five clicks to look up a word in the dictionary.

But this only scratches the surface of what such a service could offer, reckons Erik, who runs a highly-regarded daily link log, and whose career included a stint at Apple.

Google lags far behind Yahoo in terms of mobile alerts and carrier partnerships - Yahoo!'s Alerts service delivers the weather and email notifications, so there's plenty of catchup to do.

But how much of the heavy lifting Google allows third parties to do remains uncertain, which illustrates the peril of thinking of Google as an "operating system" - a recent whimsical notion popular with some tech bloggers.

It might be Jim, but not as we know it. Just as in the Apple or Microsoft worlds, developers are at the mercy of the API and service provider, with whom they may compete. But small developers have far less freedom to write the applications they want, and far less chance to build up a brand, before the mothership decides to pull the plug. So Google less resembles an "operating system", even one with only one operator, than it does those patches of industrial wasteland near sports stadiums where unlicensed wheel clampers are known to operate. It's far safer, and far more attractive, developers may conclude to sell the service directly to the service providers.

Google's API has quite a few limitations, says Thauvin.

"Google Locale isn't available," he points out. "Calculation and conversions aren't there either. The current API is mostly for searches, spelling and cached pages". For iterative queries Google will need to consider delivering a MIDP client of its own, or a native application for Symbian fairly soon. But Thauvin agrees the genius of the current approach is that it uses the universal UI and delivery mechanism, SMS. US carriers look on enviously at the data revenues enjoyed in the rest of the world, almost all of which is text messaging.

We shouldn't forget, adds Erik, that Google could provide interactivity via MMS, Multimedia Messaging Service.

"If they did MMS, they could send you 'clickable' links. For example "news election results washington" could deliver the top news items relating to that query - short, one line summary with a pointer to more perhaps." Meanwhile, GooglME itself won't be keeping still. It will soon be getting a browsable history list and a persistent location setting - so you don't have to keep telling it your zip code, says Thauvin. As we noted with IWan2Go, a Java client allows the user to compose a query offline, such as during a Tube journey, then send it once within coverage.

To sample GooglME you must be in the US, which is the only place you can use Google's SMS service; download it from here, or point your WAP browser to http://www.thauvin.net/erik/j2me/, which will autodetect your phone. There's a MIDP 1.0 version too.

This is all pretty decent of Erik, who's one of several Adwords customers owed money by Google. We ought to remind them of this search result Glossary: * evil: morally objectionable behavior; after all, they do now have our cellphone numbers. ®

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