Yahoo iPhone apps hint at what's to come

Sketch-a-Search and the new search app indicate the direction Yahoo plans to follow in mobile after the Microsoft deal

Yahoo introduced two iPhone applications this week, including one that lets users draw a circle on a map to look for restaurants within a specific area.

When users launch the Sketch-a-Search app, they immediately see a map centered on their location using GPS. Users can then draw a circle around an area as wide as they want. The application displays push pins for each restaurant within that area and lists them below the map.

Clicking on a restaurant from the list leads to a page with information collected by Yahoo, such as user reviews and photographs. From there, a user can click to call the restaurant or get directions.

Instead of a circle, a user can draw a line along a road to find restaurants just along that street. Shaking the phone erases the search.

The idea behind the application was to offer a better way to do local searches, said David Katz, vice president of Yahoo Mobile's Americas region, during an interview at the CTIA conference in Las Vegas. Typically, local search apps use GPS, zip codes or even a neighborhood name to locate shops in the area. "Most people have a physical area in mind" that might not correspond to any of those, he said.

For now, Sketch-a-Search is available only in the U.S. and displays only restaurants. In the future, however, Yahoo sees potential to extend the service to other kinds of listings, like real estate.

Yahoo also introduced a search application for the iPhone. It lets people search by voice command and is smarter about displaying pertinent information, Katz said. For instance, if a user searches for "Shrek," Yahoo recognizes that as a movie search and first displays some facts about the movie, such as show times and reviews. Users can shake the phone to clear those results, too. That application is available in 22 countries.

Despite Yahoo's search agreement with Microsoft, Yahoo will continue to work on its own search applications like Sketch-a-Search. "What we want to do going forward is focus on the user interface and experience. A product like Sketch-a-Search is an example of what that means in practice," said Katz.

Yahoo faces tough competition from Google and now also from Bing to form search deals with mobile operators. Those deals typically involve the operator preloading a search bar from their preferred partner on a smartphone's home screen.

While Yahoo recently lost a search deal with T-Mobile to Google, it has also won new deals. "The initial arrival of Android created a lot of churn in the market but over time, as the AT&T Backflip example illustrates, we think we will continue to be able to distribute search effectively," Katz said.

AT&T recently decided to use Yahoo search on the Android Backflip. While AT&T has a search agreement with Yahoo, it was not required to use Yahoo on the Backflip, Katz said.

"Our view is it will continue to be this back and forth and give and take, and Bing will be a factor too," he said.

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