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There's an app for that -- sort of
Big G just launched two significant applications for the Android mobile platform that nudge your cell phone a little bit closer to pure magic.
The most impressive of these is the Google Goggles app, which lets you do Web searches through the camera in your Android-based phone. Instead of entering words into a search box, or even speaking your query into the phone (another Android feature that got a minor upgrade this week, with Japanese added to the list of supported languages), you simply point the camera at the thing you're curious about.
It could be a book cover, a geographical landmark, a bar code, business cards, or a corporate logo, among other things -- the picture will be sent to a Google server and deconstructed, with an appropriate response sent back to your phone. Problem solved.
It doesn't work great for things like cars, animals, or clothes yet, and for privacy reasons, Google doesn't even try to identify people in your images. So it isn't quite magic -- at least not yet. But it's still a major step forward from the current state of the art, where Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone apps like Red Laser or SnapTell can perform simple visual searches on things like bar codes and book covers. Google claims to have a visual database of "tens of millions" of objects and places that can be identified by a picture alone, and Goggles manager Shailesh Nalawadi envisions "a future where visual searching is as natural as pointing your finger."
Goggles is available for free today, and runs on any Android phone of version 1.6 or later, which includes the Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) Droid. There's work being done to bring Goggles' functionality to other platforms too, though, including a plugin for the Google Chrome browser. Given that Google generally strives to keep Web surfers happy regardless of how they surf, I wouldn't be surprised to see mobile Goggles apps for the iPhone or Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) BlackBerry before too long.
Somewhat less impressive but still significant is the "what's nearby" feature in the updated version of Google Maps for recent Androids. Press and hold your finger anywhere on a Google map and you'll see a list of the 10 closest points of interest, such as restaurants, museums, and retail stores. It's a shortcut that immediately answers the frequent, burning question of "What's around here, anyway?"
Remember that convenience is king, and Google works in a market where every millisecond counts. Sure, you could get the same list of 10 Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) shops around Times Square (two of them in the restrooms of the largest one) in other ways, like running the store locator on Starbucks' own site or doing a text search on Google Maps -- or its equivalents from Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) or Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Bing. But it'll take you longer, you could mistype something and need to start over, and the simple proximity search could show you results you wouldn't have thought to look for in the first place.
Taken together, which is how Goggles and What's Nearby? were presented by Google, these features demonstrate a fanatical dedication to a simple user experience that is easy to understand and equally simple to use. That future where searching the Web becomes as natural as pointing a finger be a future where Google is swimming in cash generated by the advertising that will inevitably come along for the ride. And that's when today's investments in forward-looking and seemingly ridiculous technologies will pay off in spades.
If you thought Google was big and rich today, you ain't seen nothin' yet. There's money-making magic in the road ahead.