Search engines, angling to win over mobile customers early, are racing to solve these problems. Their solutions, in some cases, are wildly different.
Yahoo's solution is a nod to the social-networking craze. Its OneConnect service, which makes its debut this summer, integrates messaging and social-networking updates from Facebook, MySpace and the like in one spot on the phone. OneConnect ties directly to a user's address book, letting people share information, social-networking updates and messages on the fly.
"On the phone, time is limited, so you really need to provide highly relevant and useful information," says Marc Davis, chief scientist for Connected Life, the Yahoo unit responsible for non-PC services, including mobile.
That philosophy is the force behind "OneSearch with Voice," which integrates voice-recognition technology with traditional search. The service allows users to simply speak their request into a cellphone — "Where's the best craps table in Las Vegas?" — in plain English. Responses are sent back in text form, as in any other search.
The voice-recognition technology is "so good, it's shocking," Davis says, handling accents, continuous speech and verbal affectations with ease.
While all searches, mobile and otherwise, use the same search algorithm, there is one big difference: Yahoo says mobile search responses are provided strictly on the basis of relevancy, with no preferential treatment for ad-supported products and services. "This is about providing answers, not links," Davis says.
Google says it sees no reason to change what it does just because it's moving into the wireless arena. "We think that what we do is highly transferable to the mobile device," says Matt Waddell, chief of mobile and developer products for Google.
The tiny screen isn't a problem, he says. "It's still as easy as typing."
That said, Google is making a few accommodations. Instead of giving wireless users pages of search results, for example, it only offers "snippets" — Google-speak for the first few search results that appear at the top of the page. It's also limiting the number of ads to one or two per search.
Waddell says the advertising opportunities in wireless are huge. One example: Say you're in San Francisco, and you suddenly get an urge for pasta. Provided your device has Global Positioning System location technology, Waddell says, Google can offer up a list of Italian restaurants within a five-minute walk.
"Advertisers would probably be willing to pay more money for such an ad, because it would be much more targeted," he says.
While such an approach might seem to subjugate the interests of consumers to advertisers, Waddell says that's not the case at all. "We never think of advertising first," he says, adding, "We won't touch an ad with a 10-foot pole unless we think it delivers a better search experience."
Google on the go
Google is taking other steps to make sure it doesn't get iced out of wireless opportunities. The Web giant is pushing development of an open wireless operating system — dubbed Android — that would make it easier for consumers to use Google's mobile services. Android-loaded devices are expected to hit the market later this year.
While the big incumbents duke it out, start-ups are nipping at their heels. That includes Medio, a Seattle-based company that hopes to turn itself into the Google of mobile.