I got an email from a fellow named Shawn McCollum asking me to take a look at his new mobile site, Wampad.com. I believe that Shawn has actually created a new type of mobile site - a search based portal. The basic concept is that you enter a search phrase once and then use it to query a bunch of different sites.
Wampad's front page is simplicity itself. There's just a drop down, a text box and a Go button. You chose a type of search from the drop down, type something in the text box and press the button.
So what kinds of things can you do with Wampad? Well for one, you can go to a website. If you choose "Website" from the drop down, enter "wapreview" and then press the button - you get a screen with four links; "Search for wapreview", "go to www.wapreview.com", "Go to www.wapreview.net" and "Go to www.wapreview.org". So you have potentially saved yourself some typing. This may not be a big deal - many mobile browsers will add the "www." and ".com" to an address if you leave them off - but that doesn't help for .net or .org. But there's a lot more. If go back to the Wampad front page, your search text is still there, at least with most browsers, and you can make a different selection from the drop down. There are 18 choices;
- Search - search for a mobile site on Google or a web site on Yahoo or MS Live (with transcoding). Thank you, Wampad for making the Google default a mobile search rather than a search for inferior transcoded web sites as Google itself does.
- News - search Google Mobile News.
- Shopping - do a UPC lookup or do a product search on Froogle, Amazon, Yahoo Shopping or Become.
- Stocks - enter a ticker symbol to get a quote, chart or company news from Yahoo Mobile Finance.
- IMDb - do a keyword search across the Internet Movie Database's huge archive. The search string can be an actor, title or keyword.
- MySpace, MSN Spaces, or Flickr - search for a user's page. MySpace is Google transcoded, Spaces and Flickr searches return the respective sites own mobile versions.
- Del.icio.us - Enter a del.icio.us user id to retrieve the user's bookmarks tagged with "mtag".
- Upcoming.org - search for an event. You have to enter an upcoming.org event id. I have my doubts about the utility of this - how would a user know the id in advance?
- Patents - enter a patent number and read the patent abstract and related documents from the United States Patent Office - transcoded by Google.
- Horoscope - enter a birth date or a sign name and see a horoscope from MSN Mobile.
- Weather - enter a zip code for a Google Mobile forecast.
- Lottery - enter a zip code for your state lottery's winning numbers from MSN Mobile.
- Movies - enter a zip code to see what's showing nearby or enter a title for a review - from Yahoo mobile.
- Flights - enter a flight number and you'll be prompted to chose an airline. Supports 10 airlines (US majors, Air Canada, Virgin and British Airways) - looks up the flight on Travelocity's mobile flight tracking site.
- Wikipedia - search for an encyclopedia entry - uses the main Wikipedia site transcoded by Google rather than one of the several mobile interfaces to Wikipedia. Nothing wrong with that - the Google transcoder does as good a job as any of the mobile versions of Wikipedia, none of which are official anyway.
- Wiktionary - search for a word on Wiktionary - Google transcoded.
That's a lot of choices, perhaps too many, but you can customize Wampad to remove any of the search types that you don't use and change the order in which they appear.
Wampad provides a consistent interface to many different sites. It also speeds searching by allowing you to use the same query string against multiple sites without having to retype it. This is a real help as most phones (except smartphones) don't offer copy and paste. Even Opera Mini, as great as it is, doesn't support cut and paste. Mobile web users tend to avoid entering text and in fact the W3C's
Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0 document urges mobile developers to minimize text entry. Yet for tasks involving searching, a text query is generally the most efficient and often the only practical way to perform the search - think getting the definition of a word, tracking a flight or bringing up a MySpace user's page. Wampad lets users reuse what they have already entered, saving effort. It's not un-common to search for the same word across multiple search engines, the encyclopedia and the dictionary. Users tend to use the same user name on multiple social sites like Flickr, MySpace, a personal bog on MSN Spaces etc. so there's reusability there too. You'd use the same zip code to get weather, movie show times or local news. Ideally, I'd like to see Wampad remember my last ten or so search strings and let me choose them from a list like auto-complete in web browsers. Maybe I'm making too much of the value of reusing previous text entry, but I think it's small things like this that make mobile applications attractive to users.
While I think Wampad has created a useful new UI paradigm for mobile browsing, the site itself is still a little rough around the edges, understandable for a new site. Here are a few things that I think would make Wampad even better.
The site really needs some form of user help or documentation. It's not obvious that the patent search expects a patent number or the flight search expects a flight number, for example. I asked Shawn about documentation and he promises some soon. In the meantime, if you leave the search field blank and hit "Go" you will get a message telling you what type of input the current option is expecting.
The use of a drop down list to choose a search category is less than optimal on most phones. You have to first select the control and then scroll down the list, one click per line and then one more click to finalize your selection and yet another click to move off the drop down control to the text entry field. I'd prefer a series of links (no more than 10 links - less used choices could go in a sub-menu - so that each link can have an numeric access-key accelerator.) The links could also replace the "Go" button so that all the user has to do is enter their query in the text box then exit the text box and press say "1" for website or "2" for search or "9" for Wikipedia. This would reduce key presses and improve the user experience. Shawn did tell me that he is a least planning to reduce the default number of choices in the drop down to 10.
Finally, the "go to website" option needs to offer a way to go directly to the site without passing through the Google transcoder. While the transcoder serves a purpose in making non-mobile sites at least minimally usable on a mobile browser, most of the time I prefer to use sites designed for a mobile browser - which don't need the transcoder. Shawn recognizes this and is working on a way to render mobile sites un-transcoded.
Shawn has his own plans for Wampad enhancements. Wampad has a full-sized web site which currently displays the Wampad mobile site running in a mobile emulator. Shawn feels that showing mobile content on the desktop helps to drive increased mobile usage. I agree that many people think that reading the news or a map on a "tiny" cell phone screen is impractical, but when they actually see it done either on a real phone or even simulated on a web page they change their mind. Toward that end, Shawn's thinking of creating a Wampad sidebar. He's done a mock up of how it will look in Vista. Other plans for the web site include free user accounts which will allow registered users to more extensively customize Wampad. Users would also get a profile page where they could set up links to mobile versions of their Flickr, MySpace, Del.icio.us, etc. pages and then share their Wampad profile pages with their friends as a kind of mobile homepage. An enhanced local search is also planned where entering a zip code would return multiple types of local information from various sources. Shawn sees building a community of users as a key to the success of the site and said that while he'd like to add popular features like photo-sharing and moblogs, that as only one guy working on Wampad in his spare time he's better off concentrating on features that aren't found on existing mobile sites.
It's exciting to encounter someone with as many fresh ideas and as much enthusiasm for mobile as Shawn - I wish him the best of luck with Wampad.