Google kills off SMS Search: What you can't do now that it's gone

A neat Google tool you probably didn't know about is gone now. So it goes.

Late on a warm Thursday night in 2008—the night of July 31, to be exact—a young man sat at his keyboard, thought about the iPhone, and declared that you didn't really need an iPhone. Again, it was 2008, but it was still a good year after the iPhone had stunned, impressed, and started to sell in big numbers.

The big reason you didn't need an iPhone, that idealistic and somewhat thrifty young man reasoned, was that Google offered a robust search tool that worked through text messages. Send a text message to G-O-O-G-L-E with the kind of text you'd search on Google, and you would get a text back with the information you needed. Send "Iron Man 3" and your ZIP code and you would get showtimes at theaters near you. Text "Directions 123 Mercer Street to 321 Apple Ave., Anytown, CA" and you would receive a few turn-by-turn texts. Add in an idealistic view of free Wi-Fi eventually spreading everywhere, and, boom: a contrarian view on smartphones!

"Would get" and "would receive" because, sadly, Google has effectively killed off is SMS Search tool. I had noticed a few months back that Google seemed to be hiding the SMS Search explainer deep in its documentation (here's what it looked like before disappearing). And Google's small suite of SMS-based tools were generally diminished, and heavily pushed Google's smartphone applications. Some of those SMS tools still work, like Google Calendar reminders and Blogger live updating, but don't bet on them sticking around for too long.

Why should anyone mourn the loss of a service that most people didn't know existed? I would offer a few reasons:

  • It was a great backup. When a 4G/HSPA+ connection goes wonky (and that definitely happens), SMS is the connection that's almost always available, since it's just a very small rider on your basic phone signal. And basic phone signal is available almost everywhere.

  • It made sense for over-border traveling in North America. Data plans and roaming charges are brain-melting expensive in many parts of Canada, for example, and sending a text message is far less painful than flipping a phone off airplane mode and watching it sync your money into oblivion.

  • There are flip-phone-toting smartphone holdouts. I'm friends with a few of them. And an occasional Google search for a business phone number is a nice option.

  • It showed off Google's understanding not just of web searches and Google-Plus-integrated services, but of pure contextual information. "Here is the answer to the question you asked, in plain text," which is harder than it seems (and probably part of why it's shutting down).

Anyways, here's to a little-known Google service that could be very handy when all you had was a plain old phone. There is one alternative that has been around some time, 4INFO, although the setup and tone of the service are a lot less easy and casual than Google's departed service.

Read more of Kevin Purdy's Mobilize! blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinpurdy. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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