Google CEO Schmidt Again Champions Autonomous Search, NFC

Google CEO Eric Schmidt returned to a familiar stomping ground in discussing autonomous search, or contextual discovery, as well as the value of NFC for Android.

What-if not the intersection of mobility and search-would anyone expect Google CEO Eric Schmidt to discuss at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week?

That is exactly what Schmidt did during his keynote. He described how Android smartphones make possible "autonomous search," where Google's search engine suggests search results, such as restaurants and museums, that users might be interested in, based on preferences indicated from their search history.

"It's interesting to think of your phone first as a communications device, then a data platform and now a serendipity platform, giving you the ability to find new things and meet new people you wouldn't meet otherwise," Schmidt said during his keynote.

This is nothing new. Or, rather, the idea is not new. Schmidt has been discussing this topic and similar scenarios since last September at TechCrunch Disrupt. Schmidt and his core leadership eventually tapped former search user-experience guru Marissa Mayer to lead these efforts as head of geolocal products at Google, though products have yet to surface.

Mayer last December called the effort one of "contextual discovery," where Google tracks information users generate in their computer Web browser and Google toolbar to "look at where people have been going on the Web-then we deliver it."

There were also rumors ahead of Mobile World Congress that Google could unveil a mobile payment platform based on NFC (near-field communication), the short-range wireless technology that enables communications between sensor-laden smartphones and contact terminals. Presumably, such a platform would enable Android phone users to swipe their devices to procure goods.

Schmidt did not reveal such a solution in his discussion, but just as he first did in a tete-a-tete with reporters at the Web 2.0 Summit last November, the CEO espoused the benefits of NFC with reporters after his speech.

He said Android smartphones equipped with NFC would pave the way for wireless transactions in the future. Google, he said, could work with advertisers to extend offers to phones with NFC chips. Google is currently testing NFC on posters (but not payments) in stores in Portland, Ore., as part of its Google Places local search and ad efforts.

The handsets are here (Samsung Nexus S) and more are coming (Samsung Galaxy S II). The next step would be getting merchants to support NFC en masse and for applications developers to create software to facilitate such transactions.

In broad strokes, Google is working on contextual discovery and NFC. The latter would work first for ads, then possibly for mobile payments. What does this mean? It means the mobile phone can make the world one's personal oyster.

Imagine a person walking down the street, passing a restaurant and receiving a notification that the eatery has a coupon for cuisine he or she enjoys. When he finishes his meal, he pays by swiping his NFC-enabled smartphone against a point-of-sale terminal. The phone is a local directory and wallet rolled in one.

This is what Google is working toward with search and Android. The big questions are now: What will these services look like? What privacy measures will Google provide? When will we see the fruits of Google's labor?