Google launched a mobile version of their Google News Tuesday. The neat thing about Google's new mobile service is that the way it works is not only good for users but also benefits the mobile web as a whole.
The full-sized Google News site has been around for three years but only recently moved out of the public beta stage. Unlike most news portals which employ flesh and blood editors to select stories from the various wire services, other sites and now even from blogs, Google uses special search-based technology to determine what articles to include in News and which of those articles are timely enough and newsworthy enough to deserve placement on the start page. While there have been some isolated issues with tasteless or worse racist stories getting into Google New's results, Google News generally does a pretty good job of picking up on what's timely and newsworthy. Google News doesn't show the whole article but rather headlines and some teaser text from the article with a link back to the full story on the originating site.
I was eager to see how Google mobilized News. I expected to see a mobile front end on the "big" Google News with a mobile-friendly front page containing links to transcoded copies of the same stories that were featured on the big site. But that's not what Google has done. They are spidering news sites on the mobile web. So the stories on mobile Google News are all from mobile sites. It actually works very well and in doing so shows how mature the mobile web has become. When I checked, both sites had as their top story a piece about Bush's trip to India. The web site's story is from CNN while the mobile site's comes from the Baltimore Sun's mobile edition. Google seems to have no trouble filling the mobile news site with hundreds of stories. Admittedly the web version has many more (thousands) but there is more than anyone can possibly read on the mobile site. Best of all, by linking to mobile sites rather than transcoding full web sites Google is driving traffic to those mobile sites - which will help to make the mobile web grow.
Google News is actually drawing it's stories from sites using three different technologies; WAP1 sites using WML, WAP2 sites using xhtml-mp and PDA friendly HTML sites. Google links directly to the WAP1 and WAP2 sites but transcodes the PDA sites. I think this is a perfect solution. There are a lot of PDA sites out there, maybe even more PDA sites than WAP ones. The PDA sites are generally quite usable on even low end phones, but they can contain pages or images that are too large for a non-smartphone's browser to handle. The Google transcoder solves this problem by breaking long pages up into multiple smaller pages and re-scaling images to fit the phone's dimensions. The transcoder also deals with those annoying blocks of links that some PDA sites put at the top on the page before the real content. The link block works pretty well on a PDA where it only takes up at most 3 lines out of about 12 total lines - but on a tiny phone screen the links fill the entire first screen and sometimes the second. The Google transcoder collapses the link block down to a single line with a "+" link that will expand the block if you really need to get at the links. While I generally prefer a true mobile site to a transcoded version of a site designed for larger browsers, I really like how well Google's transcoder handles PDA sites - taking a page that is already mostly OK for mobile and making it into a great mobile page. Transcoding full size websites, on the other hand, is useful in that it can get you access to information you might not otherwise be able to view on your device, but it rarely gives as good a user experience as a site designed for mobile browsing in the first place.
The best thing about Google News isn't the front page of algorithmically selected top stories, it's the search. This is true of both the desktop and mobile versions. Enter a search string and you will get a page of links to news stories meeting your search criteria. And because it's a Google search, you can use most the advanced features of Google's search language. I've tried "OR", parentheses "+", and "site:" - they all work on Google News, including mobile.
The Mobile News site is WAP2 only, although many of the pages it links to are WML (wap1). I've created a link (below and on the News page of the yeswap.com portal) to Mobile News transcoded to WML.
Google doesn't translate the WML pages into HTML for the handheld browsers that don't support WML, like the Hiptop/Sidekick, PIE before Windows Mobile 2002, Palm Blazer before Version 4 or Palm Webpro. If that is a problem for you, Google suggests using the full version of Google News on your PDA browser but I suspect that wont't work very well with some of the above browsers.
I congratulate Google on a very nice mobile service that showcases the depth of content on today's mobile web.