Web Watch

Services With Mini-Screens in Mind

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, April 17, 2005

Two popular Internet services recently rolled out free, bite-size versions of their sites that can be used on cell phones and handheld gadgets. Google rolled out a new Google Local site last week, allowing users to call up local business listings quickly, while Answers.com introduced a reference service that offers look-ups on the go.

Both show that Web publishers are finally getting serious about making their sites more readable for the tiny screens of mobile computing devices. For now, neither service contains advertising -- although ads remain a possibility for both.

Google has long had a mobile version of its search service (mobile.google.com) that lets people see search results in a streamlined format. On Tuesday it introduced a similar version of Google Local, which reformats its local business listings and maps for tiny display.

The new Google Local mobile page (mobile.google.com/local) presents two minuscule search boxes -- "what'' and "where'' -- and invites people to type in, say, "movies" and "20071." It then presents a list of 10 matching movie theaters with a map showing their locations -- a map so small as to be virtually useless. To see useful maps, you must click on one listing and zoom in.

A business's listing presents its street address and, if available, telephone number, along with a link to driving directions. Many cell phone users will find they can click those numbers to have their phones automatically place a call.

Google's local mobile service works only on phones and wireless devices using a Web browsing format called XHTML, available on more than half the cell phones used in the United States.

Google also introduced a new way to retrieve driving directions on cell phones -- by sending a short text message to the code 46645 (that spells "GOOGL" on most phones). Messages must include a starting address, followed by the word "to," then the ending address.

Answers.com, meanwhile, introduced its own free mobile service a few weeks earlier. This popular Web reference site recently overhauled its business to convert from a $30-a-year subscription service to an all-free Web site supported by advertising.

Answers.com, owned by GuruNet Corp., is not a typical Web search engine (http://www.answers.com/). Rather than presenting lists of matching sites, it takes users directly to entries and illustrations on more than 1 million topics pulled from encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries and 100 other data sources. The site has grown rapidly since it went free in January, answering an average of more than 2 million queries a day so far this month. Its new mobile version (mobile.answers.com) is even more pared-down than the regular site, presenting definitions and entries from only one data source at a time for quicker transmission to phones and wireless handhelds.

No-Bid Buying at Priceline

Priceline.com, the company famous for letting shoppers name their own travel prices, is becoming more conventional. Starting Monday, it began inviting people to book hotel rooms and rental cars at flat rates, rather than through its older "reverse auction" bidding system. Priceline first started selling airline tickets at flat rates last year, then last week expanded that flat-rate system to the new categories of hotels and cars and made it a much bigger part of its Web site.


Pay Up to Meet Up

Meetup Inc., the Internet company that made its name arranging political meetings during the U.S. presidential election, told members this week that the free ride is over. Starting in May, Meetup groups that want to keep managing offline gatherings using its Web service must pay $19 a month for the privilege. (A $9 discounted rate is available for the next few weeks.) Many other financially strapped free Web services are watching closely to see whether people will ante up to Meetup.


E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company