Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Evolution of Mobile Search in India

The race to capture the mobile search market in India is heating up with Yahoo! launching a voice based search application for mobile phones and Google trialling a search helpline on the lines of JustDial, in Hyderabad. Voice-based search is the next big thing in the mobile search market in India. We look at why this is so, while taking a look at how these companies plan to innovatively grab market share with their unique offerings.

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Indian cellular industry was pegged at 242.4 million users in January 2008 vis-à-vis 37 million internet users according to the IAMAI, with an average of 8.2 million users being added every month. Only eight out of 100 Indians currently own a mobile phone and it is more than likely that the first computing and internet experience for most of them will be via this medium. The mobile search giants like Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have noticed these facts and are vying for lucrative market share in the virgin Indian search market.

Yahoo! first launched its WAP search portal in 2001. Due to the popularity of low-end phones, it then launched a new SMS service called Yahoo! oneSearch in September 2007, which allowed users to search for information via SMS. According to David Ko, Vice President and General Manager, Connected Life Asia, Yahoo! "Consumers want search on their mobile phone to be entirely different from search on the PC". Searching for ‘Theatre Andheri Mumbai’ shows a list of three theatres in the Andheri area in Mumbai, along with their contact numbers.

In October 2007, Google also got into the fray by launching a similar SMS search service called Google SMS in India. A major difference with Yahoo!’s SMS search offering is that you can set the location of your city and area in Google’s SMS Search. With that done, searching for a ‘Pizza Hut’ will show the closest Pizza Hut restaurants in your area.

The only hindrance to SMS Search from both Yahoo! and Google is the size of the English-speaking user base in India. To counter this, Google has just begun trialling a voice based helpline service in Hyderabad, which will allow users to call a toll-free number and search for information – exactly like the JustDial service. When asked to comment on the new service, Yahoo! responded by saying that it had recently launched a voice-enabled edition of oneSearch in which the user can search for information by speaking into the phone.

Microsoft has taken a completely different route to cracking the Indian mobile search market. It has collaborated with Vodaphone’s WAP portal to offer its Live range of services to enable search for local business listing and services available in the metro and tier-I cities of India. It refused to comment when asked about what it was planning to do in the mobile voice search space or about its plans relating to mobile search in India.

Airtel also has a similar agreement with Google to power search on its WAP site. When asked about any plans to include Google’s recently launched voice search service, a company insider confirmed that there were no such plans in the pipeline.

Indian search companies too are adopting a wait a watch attitude. has tentatively launched a mobile version – which is accessible by mobile phones – for their end users, while plans to make investments in mobile search in the near future.

End users on the other hand have slowly started to take notice of these services. Amit Varma, a Film Cell Executive of PVR Cinemas uses the Yahoo! oneSearch application to search to know the cricket score whenever India is playing a game. On the other hand, Rohan Vargese, a software professional with Infosys, has used the Google SMS Search service and thinks that the price of each SMS search (Rs. 3) is far too high to use on a regular basis. He goes on to mention that a “voice based search like the one launched by Google in Hyderabad would be better, as it would be free to use”.

From the actions of the players in the market, it seems like they are still only testing the waters and from the permutations and combinations being tried out, one can deduce that no one really knows for sure what will work and what will not.



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