Apple, Search, Task & Context

I’ve posted on a number of occasions about task-centric search and how it’s the future of information access. I’ve also speculated on what kind of search engine Apple should (and might be) building. Some recent comments from Steve Jobs have strengthened one of my theories and thrown cold water on the other.

First, the cold water. According to Jobs, Apple isn’t building a search engine. Some other folks suggest he’s not being entirely forthcoming, but I suspect he’s telling the truth in a literal sense. In the figurative sense though, Apple has a different vision for how people consume information – it may not be “search”, but it is information finding:

On the desktop search is where it’s at; that’s where the money is. But on a mobile device search hasn’t happened. Search is not where it’s at, people are not searching on a mobile device like they do on the desktop. (more here)

Put one way, “there’s an app for that”(TM). In terms I’ve used before, context is the organizing principle for information access, and what is a mobile app if not “context” embodied? Context can be summarized with a mnemonic: TILT. Task, Identity, Location and Time. If I know your TILT, I know your context. An iPhone app has a pretty good implicit idea about all of those things. Who you are, what you’re doing, and where & when you are. That’s why mobile apps like Yelp or Goby can so effectively answer information needs with just a few taps. John Batelle has expressed some similar ideas here. This is why people use apps on the iPhone rather than search, as Jobs suggests. That’s why Goby manifests very differently on the iPhone than in does on the web, even though the underlying information model is the same.

The broader point: in the future, information finding will be supported by task-centric, contextual search applications, not general purpose “search box + 10 blue links” search engines. They’ll manifest differently on the web than in mobile environments, but share the underlying premise.

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