Is Search The Best User Interface For Mobile?

Google has posted some more information about how search has been integrated into the first Android-powered phone, the T-Mobile G1, which goes on sale October 22.

Not surprisingly, search functionality pervades Android with an array of ways to query (just start typing, tap one of UI’s many search buttons, or press the G1’s dedicated search key). Dropdown suggestions are readily available as well, helping you identify common web search queries or reuse the ones you’ve run recently.

Most importantly, Google is providing an API that developers can use to “implement basic searchability – with recent query suggestions – in their apps”. The hope appears to be that developers make keyword search an integral part of their user experiences, thereby reinforcing the notion in consumers’ minds that search is king on the web – mobile or otherwise.

But is keyword search really the best paradigm for mobile devices? Typing on such a small object is a tricky and error-prone chore, regardless of whether you have a real physical keyboard or a plastic touch screen. Browsing and flicking around – two behaviors popularized by the iPhone – require less effort and ensure more precision. Unfortunately, they are very primitive behaviors that don’t afford much data to the device.

It would be intriguing to see Google, or some other company, innovate to combine the power of keyword search with the usability of simple finger gestures. Swype, a company that launched at TechCrunch50 and obviates the need to pick up your finger while “typing”, is a step in the right direction. However, it still doesn’t shake the notion that we should be entering words and phrases into our handheld devices to get the results we want.

Perhaps it’s impossible to see Google free its services from the keyboard since they’re so input-heavy. But an experiment at creating a browsable search engine (for the web, map directions, email, etc) would be welcome nonetheless.

Watch below as a Google employee demonstrates how search currently works on Android.