The Fragmented Mobile Information Race

Of all my posts on TechCrunch (September 2011), this was the most narrow and specific, in terms of topics.

Mobile devices are shifting many individual computing behaviors, perhaps none more significant than how we search for and receive information. Right now, it’s moving at warp speed. In between the time I finish this draft and its posted, it’s entirely possible another company or service launches in this space. Every time we “swipe open” our mobile devices, we seek out dopamine hits from receiving new emails, texts, notifications, or other bits of digital media. A good chunk of this current mobile activity revolves around the personalized search and Q&A space, which leverages these behavior in new ways.

By now, on traditional computers, we know how to find the information we seek, whether via sites like GoogleWikipedia, or through social networks. On mobile, however, our information needs and habits shift. On the go, we typically want smaller bits of information quicker, usually calibrated to our location. We are less likely to engage in longer discussion, and more likely to add questions in the hopes that machines, crowds, or some combination can produce relevant information. This shift has opened the floodgates of activity in the personalized search and Q&A space, with an impressive number of new applications vying for user attention in a crowded marketplace.

Currently, “normals” with smartphones predominantly search for information on their mobile devices through Google, Wikipedia, or, on occasion, various social networks (either via dedicated applications and/or through the browser). Other apps exist for certain needs, such as YelpFoursquare, orAroundMe for location-specific information and reviews, Greplin and Doat for personal search, or services such as LooptQuora, and even, which allow users to ask questions and (hopefully) receive good answers.

This crowded landscape is about to get even more fragmented. In the last month, Ness Computingunveiled their beautifully designed iPhone app, which applies machine learning techniques to search, filter, and tune results for restaurants, with the added benefit of learning about your tastes from your social graph and more frequent use of the app. They will eventually move into other areas.Alfred’s iPhone app, by Clever Sense, is somewhat similar to Ness without the social inputs.Loqly’s iPhone app lets users browse nearby, scrapes reviews (and menus), and encourages users to ask and answer questions. Gootip encourages users to ask questions linked to a specific location with tie-ins back into various social networks, as does Locql, which I presume Hipster will do, too, which is somewhat tangential to CrowdBeacon’s approach of offering location-specific information.Localmind’s iPhone app takes things a step further, asking users to connect major social networks to aggregate potential questions around locations. (This is a very crowded space, so was really hard to include everyone or even come close.)

In that app I happened to stumble into a Q&A thread where an employee from Quora had offered an answer. Which begs the question: How is Quora handling mobile? As I’ve speculated and as the company has hinted, it seems their iPhone app could be released soon. Mobile is a tricky play for Quora given how dense the site’s information is, though their mobile site has served users well so far. Their first version isn’t likely to include the ability to capture images and pose questions by picture. In the meantime, apps like Pupil offer a service whereby users can receive information about the pictures they upload, which is sort of what Peeqit will eventually do, too. Quora’s transition to mobile will meet similar challenges faced by other established Q&A sites with significant traffic, mainlyStack Overflow and Formspring, which each have a few third-party iPhone apps available but seemed to have paused on native solutions. One of the newest entrants, Jig by Tasty Labs, is set up as a lightweight Quora-style interface where users can post their “needs” and the community can make suggestions to “fill” those needs. They have hinted at a mobile app soon, too, perhaps one tied to SMS integration.

The importance of asking and answering questions on the go isn’t lost on the incumbents. In December 2010, Twitter acquired Fluther with the hope of capturing Twitter’s question-related activity, though results haven’t emerged yet. Facebook has the infrastructure in place for a “Questions” feature, allowing users to distinguish posts between “updates” and “questions,” as well as a slightly hidden feature of asking specific friends to answer, all backed by a topic ontology that is almost as impressive as Quora’s. (It’s fair to wonder, also, if they’ll release a separate mobile app for “Questions” as it has for “Messages” and is poised to for pictures.) LinkedIn “Answers” generates decent traffic. Google purchased Aardvark last year for similar reasons, but recently announced it was killing the project, though it remains uncertain if they’ll bake some type of Q&A feature into future G+ versions.

The competition in this space is incredible, reminiscent of the mobile photo-sharing wars of 2010. It’s safe to say that no one really knows what’s going to happen in Q&A, though it does seem really smart folks have decided that, perhaps one day (or sooner), Google’s traditional search on mobile may need to have more layers of signals in order to continue to provide relevant results for users on the go.

Let’s take it a step further. What about next-generation technologies that can make the experience for the everyday mobile user more magical? Perhaps Apple will integrate technology from itsacquisition of Siri and transform the iPhone? Perhaps another handset maker will nail a Nuance-like speak-to-text integration? Perhaps we can simply take a picture of where we are and receive tailored information immediately? Perhaps Google, after its acquisition of Motorola, will reign in Android and potentially even give away free handsets to ensure Android’s growth? Or, maybe it’s something as simple as Instagram or as wild as Color, which captures rich metadata around most of the iPhone’s sensors in order to implicitly paint a digital image of one’s physical and social whereabouts.

The sheer level of competition is amazing. No doubt the folks who built Yahoo! Answers must be shaking their heads, especially since they’ve redesigned their own interface. And, in mobile, users’ search behaviors could change so dramatically if given the right tools, so much so that it could eventually threaten search incumbents’ traffic and brand.

In particular, Google has trained us to search by keyword for over a decade now, but in real life, we aren’t wired to search this way as humans. Rather, we often search by posing questions to others around us, an activity that is inherently social, and are influenced by many social signals. And now that the social layer is permanent, and now that many apps can leverage a device’s location (and other) sensors, it’s possible to combine these variables and use a mix of crowdsourcing, curation, and machine learning to provide users with more robust and more relevant information. This paradigm poses a long-term threat to Google from many angles.

To be clear, we are not there yet. Google search will dominate for some time. Google has a powerful, global brand, and now that they are moving to controlling more of the mobile stack with their purchase of Motorola, it’s not out of the question that they will do whatever they need to do to keep Android relevant, perhaps even giving away free phones in exchange for building and maintaining a G+ account? Whatever the outcomes may be today, mobile search and specifically the mobile Q&A market is wide open, up for grabs, and will continue to be an outpost in the multifront war Google is currently fighting. And while all of us keep asking questions, I wonder who or what will provide the answers: will it be humans, or machines, or a bit of both?