Could Google transform enterprise mobile search?

The presentations at the 2016 Search Solutions conference, organised by the Information Retrieval Specialist Group of the British Computer Society on 30 November, were uniformly excellent. For me the most interesting was given by Dr. Qin Yin from the Google Research Laboratories in Zurich. To explain why I need to provide some context. In general the enterprise search experience on a mobile smartphone is poor. As the desktop UI has become more complex with multiple filters and facets it has also become more difficult to provide a sensible UI for a smartphone. Responsive design is not at option. There have been attempts over the years to develop mobile enterprise search UIs.  Autonomy offered one briefly and Sinequa does have a mobile solution but I remain unconvinced of the value of using a smartphone as a terminal device for enterprise search applications. It may be possible but is it desirable?  Another search product that is now largely history is desktop search, overtaken by improved (in relative terms!) Office search and the challenge of indexing (in my case) 10GB of stored data.

Qin Yin’s paper was about the work that Google has been undertaking on offering users the ability to search content that is already on their smartphone, in effect providing the mobile equivalent of desktop search. Now I know that Apple offer the Spotlight search through Siri but that is not a good experience in my view. Google is now offering the initial versions of what it describes as App Indexing, using its Firestorm suite. In effect you can now search through content you have downloaded into apps on your smartphone. The index is held within the smartphone but is revised periodically when (rather like with software uploads) from Google when there is sufficient bandwidth. There are some case studies on the Firestorm site.

Now for another bit of context. People tend to want their internal enterprise search to be as good as Google. We know that is technically not possible but at least it provides a default benchmark for the user experience. What occurred to me is that as this mobile internal search improves users will start to say “why can’t I have the Google App search on internal content”. I discussed this with Qin Yin after her presentation and the answer is that in principle you could, especially as Google ramps up its enterprise cloud offering. This would give the user effective access to people and expertise directories, policies and task applications, especially where the mobile desktop is getting rather crowded and you just can’t find the app with the information you need. Offline access would also be facilitated.

Now I may be off track with this but I think that as the application develops, along with Google’s enterprise cloud service, there could be a new dimension to enterprise mobile search. Although Apple have something that is sort of similar in concept  (but certainly not in execution) it is not in the enterprise information services business at all. I would be the first to admit that some of the systems architecture diagrams and descriptions from Qin Yin passed me by.  Mobile app development is not among my skill sets and I have to say that it was only half-way through the paper that the enterprise angle occurred to me and I transformed into a very active listener.  Even so I would recommend that you keep monitoring the way in which Google develops this approach so that you can be prepared to respond to the “Why can’t our mobile enterprise search be like Google?” question.

Martin White