Google has been branching out from its search-engine roots to offer a variety of Web-based applications. Some of these, especially Gmail and Google Maps, have been well received and are quite popular on computers. Now the company wants us to use these and other applications away from the computer, too -- on mobile devices.
This week, we put Google's suite of mobile programs through the ringer to see if we might let it infiltrate our on-the-go lifestyle as easily as we've let Google search become an everyday part of our computer's browser. Google offers five Web applications for downloading onto your mobile device including Maps, Gmail, SMS, Search and News.
We focused on the first three programs to see how they would fare on a tiny device with a smaller screen that demands more scrolling to view information that is normally contained in a single screen on a computer.
Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Google Maps for mobile, Gmail for mobile, and Google SMS (Short Messaging Service), a system that uses text messaging to find answers about certain topics. The programs are visually attractive on smaller screens, and didn't require much practice, catering to people who want quick assistance without much fuss.
And Gmail for mobile lets you open attachments containing photos, Microsoft Word documents and PDFs -- a capability typically only found on Treos, BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile smart phones, not cellphones.
Google Inc. isn't alone in this field. Many companies, including its rival, Yahoo Inc., make mobile applications for cellphones, and this category is likely to keep growing.
We used three mobile devices for our Google tests: the $80 Samsung A900M cellphone from Sprint, the $225 Samsung Drift cellphone, from a new phone carrier called Helio and the $400 Palm Treo 700p with Verizon service (all prices include two-year contracts). Your cellphone carrier must use Java programming language to work with Maps and Gmail for mobile; Verizon does not. The Treo works with Google Maps for mobile but not with this new Gmail version. Any phone with text messaging capability can use Google SMS.
These Google mobile applications are free to download, but your cellphone carrier may charge you for Web browsing or text messaging, depending on your plan.
To download any of these applications, you can go to www.google.com/mobile and enter your cellphone number, triggering the site to send a text message to your device with a URL link for the program you want to download. Or you can enter the URL (found on the Web site) into your cellphone's browser. We tried both methods with success, downloading Google Maps for mobile in 10 seconds during one test.
Our Sprint Samsung A900M came preloaded with Gmail for mobile, so we quickly entered our Gmail username and password to get started. In seconds, our screen was filled with up to six emails at a time, each clearly divided by lines. Each email's subject, sender and date were visible on our tiny screen, written in a legible font that didn't seem squeezed. New emails were listed in bold type.
We used the phone's directional buttons to scroll up or down, highlighting and selecting emails to read them. Each email read much like on a computer screen, but (thankfully) without the advertisements that Gmail usually lists along the right side of a computer screen.
Email attachments were easy to open and read; we opened a Microsoft Word document and a digital photo in JPG format, the photo was shrunk to fit onto our phone's screen so we didn't have to scroll. Attachments can't be edited.
You can perform every action in Gmail for mobile that you can in regular Gmail, including replying to and starring emails, searching through messages, reporting spam and archiving. We searched through emails for the word "Walt" and quickly got a list of relevant emails, and an email that we sent from the phone was received on the other end in seconds. Tasks performed in Gmail for mobile automatically synched with our Gmail account.
Google Maps for mobile was familiar and simple. After downloading it and opening it on our cellphone, we entered our ZIP Code and a map of Washington, D.C., appeared on the entire screen. A list with Find Business, Find Location and Directions options helped us narrow our search.
The select button on each of our devices zoomed in on the map, and scrolling around with directional buttons moved the map accordingly. We quickly switched between map view and satellite view, the latter showing us detailed aerial shots of our tree-filled neighborhoods. A Show Traffic option color-codes highways in 30 major cities to show how fast the cars in that area are moving.
We searched for our local Four Seasons hotel by typing "Four Seasons" into the Find Business section of Google Maps for mobile. Nine results were returned, the second was the hotel. The hotel's address, phone number, parking fees, room rates and acceptable credit cards were also listed.
The Helio Samsung Drift cellphone comes preloaded with Google's Maps for mobile, and also has built-in GPS capability. This feature lets you press "0" when using Google's mapping program on your phone; a tiny circle marks where you are on the map.
The Google SMS mobile tool is fun to use, and doesn't require a download. We just sent questions via text message to GOOGL, or 46645 on the numeric keypad. Various data can be retrieved including local listings, weather, sports scores, trivia, movie times and translations.
We asked for George Bush's age and got the 41st president's birthday sent back in a text message a second after our question was sent (June 12, 1924, if you're curious). While on the way to an Irish pub for dinner, we typed in the slightly odd name of the place and its ZIP Code (RiRa 22201) and got a local listing response, including the address and phone number for the two RiRa Irish Pubs in the area.
Sometimes we had to rephrase our inquiry to receive a helpful Google response, and if you don't have text messaging included in your phone's plan, this could get costly. But as we used Google SMS more, we got better at asking questions the right way.
If you use a computer every day, chances are good that you're spoiled by being able to retrieve helpful data within seconds, thanks to the Internet. Google's mobile applications give you that convenience on the go, in a way that doesn't leave you missing your computer.