So I was up in Napa Valley the other day with my wife and in laws, en route to a lovely day of playing hooky Northern California style: a little wine tasting, a little bistro lunch, maybe a little window shopping in the sunshine. Suddenly somebody in the car couldn't remember the name of a restaurant, so I did what came naturally to me and pulled out my review handset du jour to find the information online.
I never found what I was looking for.
The problem wasn't being out of network range, nor a lack of carrier-branded search options on my handset, nor even my choice of search terms. The problem was that all of the useful results I got back led to HTML Web pages that my phone couldn't deal with. I literally tried half a dozen pages (based on very promising search results blurbs) that resulted in, "This page cannot be displayed" errors.
Most carrier-supported handsets in the US come with WAP browsers that are great for "surfing" mobile formatted pages on the carrier's deck, but utterly useless when it comes to venturing out into the Wild West of the Web. Since none of my carrier options happen to include the name of Thomas Keller's new burger joint in Yountville, CA, I was out of luck. This carrier had also blocked installation of third-party apps on their handsets, so a quick download of Opera Mini was also out of the question.
Reliable mobile search could well be the next killer app when it comes to making wireless data services truly useful. Some smartphones do a great job of rendering full HTML Web pages - Nokias and anything with Picsel Browser or Opera jump to mind - but the vast majority of handsets in use in the US just can't deal with anything beyond WAP.
Yahoo! and Google have introduced mobile search applications, but they've yet to make it to pre-installed status on many handsets. Alltel just announced "world's first carrier-branded mobile search application to be pre-installed on handsets with a dedicated search key," (starting with the AX8600 series), and Helio's forthcoming Ocean will pack an impressive-looking "no click search" function that lets users enter search strings directly from the home screen.
Of course there's big money to be made in routing users through carefully chosen (purchased and placed) data options instead of turning them lose on the Web proper. But at the least, consumers deserve a decent way to get on-the-go information on WAP-only phones, whether it's traffic and flight updates or the seemingly less critical fact that Thomas Keller's "Burgers and Half Bottles" seems to have not yet opened ... instead, the meant to be temporary restaurant "Ad Hoc" has become so popular that the burger joint is on hold.
If only I could have found that out from the backseat of the car while we were still driving through town...