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Steve Jobs: 'Search Hasn't Happened On Mobile Devices'

In his iPhone OS 4 preview keynote last Thursday Apple CEO Steve Jobs made the following provocative (some would argue inflammatory) statement about search on mobile phones:

On the desktop search is where it’s at; that’s where the money is. But on a mobile device search hasn’t happened. Search is not where it’s at, people are not searching on a mobile device like they do on the desktop.

What? Is that true? Is he right or is he wrong?

He’s both correct and over-reaching when he says this. The somewhat false dichotomy set up between apps vs. search (and the mobile internet) is also mirrored in the contest between Android and the iPhone. The iPhone puts apps at the center of the experience, while Android (though it now has more than 20,000 apps) is more about the mobile internet, with search at the center and on the home screen. Search is present on the iPhone of course, but it’s a “secondary” part of the overall user experience.

At Google’s developer conference roughly a year ago I asked a panel that included Google’s Vic Gundotra and tech publisher and impresario Tim O’Reilly what they thought of the idea that search might become a subordinate or secondary function on mobile devices and not the center of the mobile Internet as it is on the PC. Both looked at me like I was from Mars or had horns coming out of my head. This was not only heretical but almost inconceivable.

Yet this is the argument that Jobs is essentially making. Jobs is taking a very thinly veiled jab at Google here of course; but there’s also truth in what he’s saying. The “search box” has not become the across-the-board driver of the mobile experience in the same way it is on the PC. Yet Jobs also misstates things when he says “search hasn’t happened.”

I know from anecdotal observation and experience, third party data and surveys I’ve written and fielded personally that people are searching on mobile devices. Google, for example, is the top site accessed in the US through the Opera Mini browser and 13.5% of page views in January on Opera Mini were driven by search engines. A 2009 survey conducted by Opus Research found that 21% of respondents who owned smartphones were searching at least 20 times per week on their mobile devices.

According to comScore/TMPDM (July, 2009), at least 60 percent of smartphone owners have conducted local searches using a browser on their mobile handsets. In addition, Google long ago said that 30 percent of its traffic in Japan (a unique market) came from mobile devices. And the company has reported several times that mobile search volumes in the US are growing at a healthy pace.

The following statement is from the Q4 2009 earnings call transcript:

In the 20% area, newer businesses, these are newer businesses that fuel our search business. For example, mobile. Everybody knows about the success of Android, our search traffic increased 5 times in the past two years. The Droid and Nexus One show the power of the Android approach. Great devices, multiple partners, great features, [lost] for use cases. Again, a pretty clear success at this point.

There is lots of search usage on mobile devices and it is clearly growing. However the familiar search experience on the PC is evolving on mobile devices. And there are lots of alternatives to horizontal search in the form of apps (a form of vertical search one could argue).

Google, for its part, is doing tons to keep users involved with search and to make search more useful and easier to execute on mobile handsets. Witness Google voice search, the company’s investment in mobile maps and navigation, Google Goggles (visual search), barcode scanning, and other initiatives aimed at expanding beyond the traditional search experience and keeping search — or several flavors of search — front and center on mobile, as more computing becomes mobile.

Google has clearly seen the future of computing is mobile and its new mantra is “mobile first” accordingly. To the company’s great credit it is working extremely hard to adapt search to the limitations and possibilities of mobile handsets (and now tablets). Yet search itself is evolving and diversifying “beyond the box.”

“When people want to find a place to go out to dinner, they’re not searching they’re going into Yelp,” explains Steve Jobs. “They’re using apps to get to data on the internet,” he says. He’s correct in part. But directional lookups and queries on Yelp, Citysearch, Kayak, mobile yellow pages, maps and literally thousands of other apps are equally a form of search — just not as easily recognized.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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