In early 2008, in the early days of the iPhone era, Google engineers began noticing something unusual in the search engine’s logs. Owners of these new phones were doing a huge number of Web searches.
But there was a problem: searching on a phone was less than ideal. It was hard to type on small screens. And most irritating for Google, which brags about its speed on every page of search results, was that Web pages were slow to load on phones.
So Google started a project it code-named Grand Prix. In six weeks, engineers revamped mobile searching and hatched plans for new ways to search on the go, by talking or taking photos instead of typing.
The stakes were high. Mobile phones could be a huge new market for Google. Or they could provide an opening for a competitor to pounce, or obviate the need for a search engine altogether. If people on phones could go straight to apps for information, why Google anything?
Today, Google says mobile searches are growing as quickly as Web searches were at the same stage in the company’s early days, and they are up sixfold in the last two years. Google has a market share of 97% for mobile searches, according to StatCounter, which tracks Web use.
Now that it dominates the field, Google is throwing its burly computing power and heaps of data at new problems specific to mobile phones — like translating phone calls on the fly and recognising photos of things like plants and items of clothing.