Rewriting the Web for Mobile Phones

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Internet access has become a standard feature on most mobile phones, but navigating a Web page over a tiny screen or a slow connection has kept consumers from flocking to their phones to check e-mail, read news stories or consult a map.

Now, the powerhouses of the Internet, including Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., are introducing programs specifically tailored for the mobile phone, hoping to create an experience that puts the devices on a level playing field with the personal computer.

Google yesterday unveiled a mobile version of its personalized home page for subscribers to its service and updated its mobile Google Maps feature to include live traffic updates. Yahoo Inc. last week announced that its Yahoo Go for Mobile, a Web application that combines e-mail, search, address book and local information programs, would be preloaded on millions of Motorola handsets.

Mobile Web applications have been around for several years, but only recently have companies started to jump over the hurdles that initially kept them from reaching a larger share of the mobile market.

"With mobile Web, we don't try to just plop PC-based services onto the phone," Yahoo spokeswoman Nicole Leverich said. "The network speeds are different, the device capabilities are different and what consumers want from us is different."

Still, Mark Donovan, a senior analyst with the research firm M:Metrics Inc., said the demand for advanced mobile Web services would increase as the handset technology improves.

In May, 25 million people, or 13 percent of wireless users, accessed news and other information from a mobile phone.

"There are a lot more mobile phones in the world than there are computers, and they're the most personal and intimate of these devices," Donovan said. "Google and Yahoo can't view PCs and the wireless world as disconnected silos. We live in this grid of connectivity, and we want to connect wherever we may be."

For the past year, the two Internet companies have offered text-messaging services that allowed mobile phone users to search for such information as weather forecasts, restaurant locations and movie times.

Other businesses, including retailers and media channels, are looking for ways to make mobile Web applications profitable.

Television channels ABC and HBO, for example, have launched services that allow mobile users to watch episodes of TV shows or download images. Unlike other mobile services, the content is not published through a wireless carrier. Instead, it is offered directly to the customer who uses the phone's Web connection to navigate to that site.

"A lot of companies are trying to cash in by going directly to the consumer as opposed to publishing through a carrier," Donovan said.

And that trend is only going to continue, said Matt Booth, an analyst with the market research firm Kelsey Group Inc.

"These are still the early days of the mobile Web," he said. "There's going to be a big, big market, and there are some huge players who are going to put a lot of resources into this area."

Simplifying the navigation experience, as Yahoo and Google are doing with their new mobile offerings, is a first step.

Lewis Ward, an analyst at the market research firm IDC, said consumers need to be educated about how to access the Web over their phones before the mobile surfing experience reaches the mainstream audience.

"There isn't quite enough eyeballs yet," he said. "There are a lot of adjustments to make it as user-friendly as possible. We're still a substantial distance from where we need to get."

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