Speak & Spell: New Apps Turn Phones into Multimedia Search Appliances

About five years ago, in a previous life at another technology publication, I wrote that I wished I could “Google my sock drawer.” I was being facetious, but my point was that searching the Web had become so easy that it left me yearning for equally convenient ways to search other things, like the books in my local library, the stores in my neighborhood, the recordings in my CD or DVD collection, even the everyday stuff in my house.

Well, the idea of searching your sock drawer isn’t so tongue-in-cheek anymore. You still can’t ask Google to find the missing half of your favorite argyles—but you can use the new Amazon Mobile app to take a picture of your sock drawer, then have Amazon send you a link to a page where you can buy a matching pair online.

You can also use the popular Shazam app on the iPhone to capture a few seconds of a song playing on the radio, and find out instantly what it’s called, who recorded it, and where to buy it. You can use the Street View feature of the new-and-improved Google Maps application on the iPhone to take a virtual stroll down Boston’s Newbury Street and decide which stores you want to visit. Once you get there, you can use a location-aware app like Urbanspoon or Yelp to find interesting restaurants. And you don’t even have to type in your search terms anymore: Vlingo’s new iPhone app and the latest version of the Google Mobile app can work with spoken-word input just as easily.

My point is that the newest search-related applications, especially those for advanced wireless devices like the iPhone, are lending new meaning to the very concept of search. Finding entertaining media, useful products, and interesting places no longer requires a PC, a keyboard, a Web browser, or even a traditional search engine. On the query side, devices like the iPhone 3G have built-in cameras and microphones that let them capture unconventional types of input for a search, such as photos, spoken instructions, or snippets of music. They can also fill in key pieces of context on their own—for example, by grabbing your current location from the built-in GPS chip. On the output side, the devices can supply links, reviews, videos, maps, even walking directions. The end result—a new level of connectivity to the people, things, ideas, and places around you—is, to my mind, one of the best reasons to invest in a broadband-capable smartphone. (I admit to being an iPhone chauvinist, but similar experiences are available on other gadgets, such as the high-end Blackberry devices and the T-Mobile G1 phone.)

I’ve been playing around lately with three mobile search applications in particular. Each one illustrates different strengths of the mobile platform. And together, they’ve brought me full circle, to the point where I wish that conventional desktop or laptop-based search tools had some of the same capabilities as these mobile marvels.

Google Mobile App on the iPhoneThe first is the new Google Mobile app on the iPhone, released November 14. The app has two functions. It’s a convenient portal to the browser-based versions of many of Google’s other Web services—Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Talk, Google Reader, et cetera. But it’s also a freestanding search engine, with a compelling new keyboard-free “voice search” option. All you have to do is lift the phone to your ear, as if you were making a phone call; the iPhone’s accelerometer takes that as the cue to start listening for a spoken query, like “Quantum of Solace Boston showtimes.” Take the phone away from your ear, and the software sends your voice snippet to Google for processing; within seconds, the search results show up on screen. There’s a fun, Star Trek quality to the whole operation, except that the phone doesn’t talk back. (Maybe that’s the next improvement Google will roll out.)

Second, the new iPhone app from Cambridge, MA-based Vlingo, which came out December 3, also lets you initiate Google searches by speaking. With Vlingo, you have to tap the “Press + Speak” button to start the process, rather than holding the phone up to your ear, which is an annoyance, once you’ve gotten used to the Google method. But the Vlingo app does do several cool things that the Google app doesn’t. For example, you can … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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