Last week, I contemplated writing a piece about announcements at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that would be of interest to the local search industry. I didn’t find much that I felt had a direct near-term impact. But in thinking about it over the last few days I believe there’s a story after all. We saw the emergence of the long-awaited Pebble smart watch as well as the Samsung smart fridge and announcements from both Ford and GM that they would open up their in-car platforms to developers, “essentially replicating the ecosystem of the smartphone on the dashboard.” Product demos and announcements like these reinforce the notion that we are entering an era when most consumer electronics will come with some kind of screen interface for managing the device itself and running apps.
Electronics manufacturers have tried — and failed — in the past to develop smart appliances and gadgets that would catch on in a consumer market already filled with a dizzying variety of laptops, tablets, and smartphones. They are repeating some of the same mistakes this year: Samsung’s smart fridge is overpriced at $4,000 and, as with many such appliances, not really smart enough to wow the public. Just adding a screen and some apps may not be good enough. But once a fridge can suggest recipes based on its contents, it will have our attention.
Products like Pebble, on the other hand, at a much lower price point and with the ability to define a new space in the consumer market, are likely to have a much greater near-term appeal.
Here’s how all of this matters for local, even today. We know that the great mobile shift has arrived. If we needed any further confirmation, comScore has reported that more people now access Google Maps from smartphones than PCs. This does not mean the end of the laptop era entirely, as any user of processor-intensive software like Photoshop knows. But it does mean we are using our devices in ways that have become heavily context dependent.
So in other words, if I’m out and about and want a cup of coffee, I’ll use my phone to find the nearest café. That use case makes a lot more sense that my sitting at home or the office and anticipating that I might need to know the locations of cafés that will be near me in the future. Now that we’re enabled to perform context-driven local searches, we’ve begun to abandon the more unwieldy method.
But if you’re driving down the road, even smartphones might not provide the proper context. Better, and safer, if you’re able to speak the word “coffee” and have your car return spoken results and driving directions. So, too, if you’re planning a trip to the grocery store, you might like the option of generating a shopping list based on what’s in your refrigerator. What if it could also tell you which local stores offer better prices on the same items? Just about every appliance and device we interact with on a daily basis provides its own context for a potential local search application.
There’s a lot of upside here for providers of local technology, with numerous opportunities to dream up new solutions to old problems. But the competitive landscape is changing as well, and it may be working against the spirit of competition. On the Internet, Google and other search engines provide gateways into a more or less open universe of local websites that compete for consumer attention. But on mobile devices, that competitive landscape is much narrower. In providing a subpar local search experience on its native mapping app, Apple made us realize that we were quite happy to use a default technology as long as it was working properly. On my new Nexus 7, there is no question that it’s a Google world, and using anything other than Google Maps would seem willfully contrary. Will tomorrow’s smart devices allow local start-ups to compete?
Two positive signs for competition: First, the automakers’ announcements at CES suggest a spirit of openness, with Ford even going so far as to make its platform available for free to other car manufacturers. Second, though basic mapping technology is (perhaps rightly) the domain of a few companies with massive resources, developers have been able to carve out niches in mobile for specialized services. And increasing fragmentation in the device landscape only means more specialization in future.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached on Twitter.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Eljay.