The end of search as we know it (and I feel fine)

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What exactly happens when one invites the cast of an Italian opera over for a soiree? Endless discussions of Wagner? A tribute to Pavarotti? Debate over Deborah Voigt's weight loss? Surprisingly, a baritone introduced Google to the conversation early in the evening. From hashing the ads that appear in Gmail to relaying how Google Maps on an iPhone saved the last performance, we spent a good hour discussing how search has transformed society. “I can't imagine what it would be like to have to open an encyclopedia every time I wanted to find something out,” said one guest. “Then again, I am glad I didn't grow up with the Internet. I appreciate that I actually know how to use books.” 

I immediately pictured myself with gray hair, telling the grandchildren that when I was a kid, we had to drive 10 miles in the snow to the library and then find the book by flipping through a card catalog using our knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System. And since we seem to be on a linear path, I suppose that that searching for information will only get easier and easier, perhaps to the point where information starts to find us. It is completely possible that today's youth will proudly tell their grandchildren that they actually had to physically type keywords in a search box to find information, as opposed to using the latest retina display technology.

While this seems light years away, a few recent products are significantly reducing the effort required to find what one needs. This is a welcome shift, following years of focusing on content creation, leaving the world with an endless amount of Web pages that frequently make searching harder. So what exactly does it mean to make search easier? And who is doing this? In short, anyone offering a faster Web on a mobile device is likely to be in the lead. Here are two examples of what is to come:

Geo-targeting. I have always appreciated Google maps for directions, but always felt dissatisfied when searching for local companies. That is, until I tried the iPhone map application. Using GPS to identify my current location, and a search for “coffee,” the map drops pushpins with local businesses that fit the bill. When dragging the map up or down to another neighborhood, more pins fall. Looking for directions? The iPhone will actually track your trajectory. For those that would rather not use GPS, there is an opt-out function. Those who have long struggled with how to push banners and other media on a small screen are now recognizing that improved geo-targeting abilities and a user-friendly interface will drive in-store traffic. This should be music to retailers' ears.

Audio and visual recognition. Ever hear a song and wonder what it was?  Shazam Entertainment has developed what it calls “the world's first music recognition technology,” allowing cell phone users to identify a song by simply holding the phone up to the music. Shazam will then tell you the artist and the track. This is a vast departure from the past, where a lyric would be typed into a search engine. Audio recognition will most likely expand to other applications in the near future. Firms such as Evolution Robotics are also investing in visual recognition applications allowing a device to “see.”

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