I just visited the MSN Mobile homepage and saw two new items in the menu, Windows Live Mail Beta and Windows Live Search Beta. I did a web search and it turns out that they aren't really that new having been out for over a month, but they seem to have been more or less ignored so far. The Microsoft Live Mobile team has a blog (NOT Firefox friendly) called Mobile access everywhere! which seems to be the best source of information about these new services.
I'm in the process of reviewing and comparing the various mobile web based email services (the Gmail Mobile review is up) . I'll review Live Mail soon - it's got some nice features but as an evolutionary step from Hotmail Mobile it's got a lower priority for me. Live Search is very innovative so I want to write about it first.
When you launch Live Search you initially see a screen labeled Local Search which is pretty much the same as the Local Search Beta I reviewed in The Web’s Big 3 Do Mobile in November. You can search by keyword plus zip code or address and get a list of hits, selecting a hit returns a map and a link to driving directions. Browser detection is used to vary the map's size from 110 x 110 to 217 x 217 px depending on phone capabilities. There have been some minor UI tweaks to Local Search since I last looked at it; the map has been moved up to a more prominent location as has the WTAI-enabled phone number making it easier to find or call the businesses that the search has returned. In short, it's a competent mobile local search but not much different than Google's or Yahoo's entries in this category.
The cool new part of Live Search only appears if you scroll to the bottom of the Local Search screen (or press 4 on your phone's keypad), that's where you will find Web Search. At first glance it's similar to Google and AOL's mobile searches in that it searches the full web. When you open a search hit you are served a transcoded version of the original site, optimized for display on a mobile device. What's different from AOL and Google is the way the site is reformatted and presented. Google collapses what it algorithmically considers to be the less important parts of a site, replacing them with a plus (+) sign, which when clicked, expands the collapsed part. Microsoft collapses almost everything. This entry on the MS Mobile blog gives a good description of how it works. The design seems based on the work of Microsoft (and Xerox PARC) researcher Patrick Baudisch. See his research paper; Summary Thumbnails: Readable Overviews for Small Screen Web Browsers (pdf). I found it very interesting, profusely illustrated and eminently readable.
My understanding of the the way Live's transcoding works, based on reading Baudish's paper and the blog item and playing with the site is: a full web site is retrieved and broken into small sections (Baudish calls them thumbnails, for Live, Microsoft is referring to them as panels) about the size of a single mobile screen. Logic in the Web service collapses all the panels except the one which is determined to most closely match the search string you entered. Collapsed panels are displayed as a line or two of text preceded by a plus (+) sign. Clicking the plus sign opens that panel and collapses the one that was previously open. You can see how it works in the six images at the top left. The first image shows the MSN Mobile homepage with the new links to Live Mail and Live Search. In the second image, I've already done a search for "Google acquires Reqwireless" and opened the first search hit which points to this blog. Live brought up the page with the panel containing the last paragraph expanded. This is not quite what I'd expect. It would make sense if the open panel was one containing the search string or the one containing beginning of the post, but guess the algorithm needs a little tweaking - it is a beta, after all. In the third image, I've simulated how I think it should work by scrolling up to and opening the panel containing the the beginning of the post. For the fourth image I've scrolled to the bottom of the same panel - notice the closed panels below the text. Next, I open the next panel, the one labeled "[+] has acquired Waterloo, Ontario". The results are shown in the fifth image. I like the way it works, I can quickly find the part of the page I'm interested in. Once I've found it, I can read much as I would on a traditional mobile page, except that instead of clicking a "Next" link at the bottom of each page, I click the next panel. Very slick - I think Baudisch and Microsoft have come up with a new and powerful paradigm for displaying web content on tiny screens.
Now while I think the concept is revolutionary, the current execution just screams BETA, but then it is labeled as a beta. It's fun to play with but can be frustrating to use. The site is rather slow and times out occasionally. Images are problematic in a couple of ways. First it's hard to even find the images. Look at the third screenshot, see the panel labeled "[+] Panel without text" - that doesn't sound like anything worth looking at - does it? Well actually that's how images are presented as panels - if you click on the panel you will see the image as shown in the sixth screenshot. There is also a bug with image display - when you first open a panel containing an image, only the top half or less of the image is displayed, you have to refresh the browser to see the rest.
For me, the most serious problem with Live Search is that it can't open some sites at all - like mine - very serious problem indeed. If I search for "Wap Review" the first hit returned is the front page of this blog - but if I click on that first hit I get an error:
The Live Search Mobile Proxy cannot load this page. Error 404 - The format of the original URL is invalid URL - http://wapreview.com/blog
OK, I know that http://wapreview.com/blog is technically an invalid URL, there should be a trailing slash, "http://wapreview.com/blog/" although every desktop browser and the majority of mobile browsers can happily open that URL. But the key thing is that I, the user, didn't type an illegal URL, it came from Microsoft's search engine. Live can open any of the articles on my blog by searching because the individual articles have a different URL format, ending with a program name and parameters, it's only the front page that it has a problem with.
But I'm nitpicking here, Microsoft will get this all working in time and it's a great, innovative way to do mobile transcoding. Already there are many cool things about Live search. I really like how adaptive it is. The first six screenshots were made with an emulator impersonating a Motorola V180, a lower end phone with a 128x160 px screen - images are sized to just fit the screen width. Each image is presented alone in it's own panel so you don't miss any text if you don't open the image panels. There are 13 small panels in all each containing about a screenfull of text or a single image when expanded. For the last large image, I setup my emulator to pose as a Pocket PC with a 240x320 px screen. The same page has been formatted much differently for the more powerful browser - the image is 230px wide and the story is broken into only three panels which contain both text and images in the same panel.
The bottom line is that I like Live Search, beta warts an all. Of course, the real question is if a sizable number of mobile users with feel the same way. It's a very powerful but somewhat technical solution that has a slight learning curve. I read the Baudisch paper and the Live blog before using Live Search and I immediately understood, appreciated and liked the way it worked. I have to wonder if typical users who stumble on Live search in their carrier's portal will feel the same way?
One final rant, and this doesn't apply just to Live Search but to Yahoo's and AOL's Web search solutions for mobile as well. Where's the search of the actual mobile web? If I'm looking for something: news, sports, product information weather, travel directions or whatever on my mobile device, I want to search the Mobile Web first. Why, because I know that any halfway decent purpose-built mobile page is going to be far more usable on the phone than the best transcoded desktop page. Searching the "big" web is a last-resort, a fallback if I can't find what I want on the Mobile Web. I don't use web search on my phone that much because I usually find what I need on the Mobile Web. Only Google has got it right, on their mobile search page they give you the choice of searching the "Web" or the "Mobile Web" from the same form with the same query. If one doesn't give you what you want you can try the other. Mobile Web Search that doesn't search the actual Mobile Web is less than half a solution to the mobile search problem.
I also find it disappointing that there are so few good WAP2 search engines -actually there's only one - Google's. Come on, Yahoo and Microsoft - you guys want to overtake Google in search - well WAP search is one of the fastest growing areas in search you're surrendering it to Google.
Direct Link to Live Search: html