Ask.com and Telestra, Australia's largest mobile operator, both launched new mobile search portals this week.
Ask's offering features a web search that searches the full web using Ask's own search engine. The results are transcoded for mobile usability by a white label version of Skweezer (review). It works well most of time, but for some reason, Ask's transcoded pages don't have the message and link " Page optimized for mobile device, click here to view without Skweezer. " that appears at bottom of every page when you use Skweezer.net. That link is very important both for usability and for encouraging the growth of the mobile web. Often when reading mobile Bloglines or Gmail (which both transcode all linked sites), I'll click a link in a post or an email that takes me to a mobile site rather than a PC one. With Gmail, there's a link to escape out of the transcoder and see the site as it's supposed to look on a mobile device. On Bloglines (which like Ask is owned by IAC/Interactive) there is no way to escape the transcoder - which like all transcoders tends to butcher a good mobile site.
Besides web search, Ask's mobile search offers;
- Directions - Driving and walking directions for US and Canadian addresses. I like the idea of walking directions and think I'll end up using them quite often. There is a bit of a "Release 1.0" issue though - Ask seems to have problems recognizing some very well know addresses and streets. Two addresses which Ask can't parse are: "Powell and Market, San Francisco, CA" which is San Francisco's famous cable car turnaround and "450 Goldengate, San Francisco, CA" - the US Federal Building! Strange quirk as other more obscure addresses are recognized. When it works, the route can be displayed either as a scrolling list of directions or in "Turn-By-Turn" format with each turn on it's own page complete with a graphic arrow. There's also a small map of the overall route. Ask can send an SMS containing a link to the results. When I tried the SMS feature, I got the text message immediately but the link wasn't formatted properly for my phone to be able to follow it.
- Images - Image search works well returning 94 px wide thumbnails linked to images resized to fit the device's screen, which runs anywhere from from 110 px for the SonyEricsson 610 to 240 px for a QVGA T-Mobile MDA.
- Business Listings - This is the standard local search i.e, "Sushi in 94103". I found no problems with Ask's local search which means it found just about all the Sushi Bars in my neighborhood. Each result has a click to call phone number, the address and a map. The maps are a bit crude looking but are zoomable (and you have to zoom them for all the street names to show up) and pan-able. You can also switch to an "aerial" view which looks like a satellite image to me. Ask can even give you directions to or from the business - although again you may have trouble getting Ask to recognize some addresses.
- Maps - Enter an address and get a scrollable, zoomable map.
- Weather - current temperature and conditions and today's forecast. Unlike the maps and business listings which are limited to US and Canadian addresses, weather seems to be available for cities and even small towns worldwide.
- Bloglines - a link to mobile Bloglines (review).
- Area Code - key in a city or town to find it's telephone area code or enter an area code and get a list of the communities it includes. The results page also has links to maps, weather and business listings for the given area code.
- Currency Conversion - Converts between seven major currencies (dollar, pound, yen, euro, yuan, ruble and Mexican peso). You can also get the current price for gold and silver in any of these currencies.
- Horoscopes - today's (and yesterday's and tomorrow's) predictions for your sign.
- Time Zones - look up the current time anywhere in the world.
Ask offers a nice combination of web search and menu driven reference look ups. The pages are well designed for mobile usability with minimum scrolling, short dropdown lists and good use of accesskey accelerators. Ask needs to do a little work on the address parser and also provide a way to escape from from the transcoder in web results. I'd like to see a search of the mobile web like the ones provided by Yahoo (review), Google and the subject of my next review, Telestra's Sensis Mobile. Transcoded PC web results are not the mobile web although they can be useful as a last resort. Ask.com is an easy url to type on a phone and Ask redirects mobile browsers (even Opera Mini) to m.ask.com - which you can use if your phone is not recognized or if you just want to check Ask mobile out on your PC. I've added Ask to yeswap.com under Search/Web-WAP Search.
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