Mobile’s Great Expectations: Part 2, The API Revolution

Posted by Paul Williams, Search Analyst (Natural Search)

Though it may have been staring us in the face for the last couple of years, only the forward-thinking developers seem to have taken note. There's this magically useful thing called an API (application programming interface), and its use in mobile has proven absolutely integral to the medium– especially for non-mobile Internet sites. Sure, the iPhone can briskly scan the entire New York Times Web site, navigate all its sections, and render its articles fluently with the Mobile Safari browser. But as glorious and marketable as this method may be, it’s still relatively slow, awkward, and more pointedly: it’s backward. The main New York Times Web site was designed for desktop browsers, not mobile browsers. Granted, they produced a mobile Web site to cater to all the cell phones that can access it, but it’s trite and inflexible.

There are, however, some very inventive ways around these shortcomings. The New York Times was one of the first companies to release an application for the iPhone that interfaced with its Web site. It operates like a miniature Times Reader (its other news-aggregating software, available for PCs), but adheres to the design principles of the iPhone. It syncs the latest articles across every section and facilitates a succinct, mobile-centric presentation. The text is the right size and the articles can easily be shared via email. They even found room for a small banner ad that is omnipresent at the bottom of the screen.

If that app doesn’t do the trick for you, there’s another option – Instapaper. Minimal and utterly straight-forward, Instapaper works in conjunction with a browser bookmarklet (with a bit of JavaScript), and when executed, rips the text from any article, anywhere on the Internet, re-constructing it in a mobile-optimized format for offline viewing. While it doesn’t sound nearly as exciting, it actually manages to do many things right: font choice (sans serif or serif), font resizing, image inclusion/exclusion, email share, and advertisement removal. While it strips away the fat (as it should), that last part could prove troublesome; it handily destroys any means by which a news company could profit from its product.

News sites aren’t the only ones making powerful interfacing applications – Facebook has done it, YouTube has done it, Amazon has done it, Wikipedia has done it, eBay has done it. Have Google Analytics? There’s an app out there that syncs and “mobilizes” the data. Looking for movie show times? There are several options out there, including a branded Fandango app that allows for movie trailer viewing, theatre aggregating, and ticket purchasing. Want to shop? Ralph Lauren and other top-tier brands are experimenting with shopping apps that interface with their catalogs, even providing 360-rotation of items with the accelerometer technology. In fact, just looking at ComScore’s recently released Top 50 Internet properties[1] (based on unique visitors), nine out of the top ten have some form of a mobile application.

No matter the site, everyone’s engaging mobile by making their content easily accessible to users on the go. This isn’t a trend; it’s an indication of where things are going. And we aren’t only seeing it in mobile – Boxee, a service currently in beta, is using APIs for video sites to empower digital boxes to stream content from YouTube, Hulu, CNN, Vimeo, and others – all to one location (preferably that big screen TV collecting dust).

So what does this mean, exactly? These new methods bypass using a traditional computer (and desktop browser), and they also bypass using search engines as a traditional means of finding and transacting search terms.   Stay tuned next week for Mobile’s Great Expectations, Part 3:  Implications for Search.

Part 1: The Rise of Mobile

[1] ComScore press release, 03/20/2009:

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