Upgrading the Mobile-Phone Web

By Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Having a Web connection on a cellphone seemed like a good thing for Ron Geatz -- until he tried to use it.

A business traveler, Geatz often found himself in strange cities, searching for things like restaurants or nearby ATMs. But navigating the small screen of a phone was less than ideal.

"I was looking for things the way I would on my laptop, and I just didn't find that to be very satisfactory," said Geatz, a magazine writer in Washington. "It was a little too clunky, a little too slow."

Now, searching on a mobile phone is starting to undergo a makeover that takes into account how mobile Web surfing can be different from surfing on a home PC. Companies including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL are investing in new ways of offering mobile search -- and related advertising -- to try to encourage users like Geatz to use the wireless Web more.

Today, Yahoo is launching OneSearch, a program that tries to anticipate what a phone Web surfer is looking for. Top results of a Yahoo search for "Washington DC" on a computer might link to official tourism and city government sites; the same search on a cellphone might yield a neighborhood guide, an interactive map and a weather forecast.

"We feel that mobile search is . . . not just a mere translation of putting PC search into a mobile phone," said Marco Boerries, a senior vice president at Yahoo. "A mobile device is not really designed for a lot of browsing. There's no mouse, the speed is limited and the screen is smaller."

People using a phone for search, he said, are probably looking for something specific -- who's winning the game, whether to carry an umbrella or how to find the nearest pizza joint.

"They don't want to research a book," Boerries said. "They're looking for a quick, instant answer."

Today, only a small fraction of people use their phones to search the Web, but many companies see the technology as a critical frontier.

Although Google hasn't released details about its new mobile search offering, Jim Holden, director of strategic wireless partnerships, said the company recognizes its importance.

"If you think about it now, there are about 1 billion PCs and about 2 billion mobile phones," he said. "For a lot of people, the mobile phone may be the primary access to information."

Last week, Microsoft announced plans to purchase Tellme Networks, a Silicon Valley company that has tried to simplify searching by using voice-activation software. Its test product, called Tellme by Mobile, allows users to speak a search query into a phone and see the results on the screen.

"We're coming from a different point of view, letting people use their voice rather than having to triple-tap," said David Mitby, product manager for mobile services at Tellme.

AOL, which has been developing its own version of mobile search, takes another approach. Instead of anticipating what the user is looking for, it narrows results by asking users to select a category to query: Web Search, Local Search, Shopping Search or Surf the Web.

Data show that Internet searches were used by almost 6 percent of subscribers with Web-capable phones in the three months ended in January, according to M:Metrics. That's up from a 4.8 percent three-month average in February of last year.

A survey conducted late last year by Symbian, a maker of mobile-phone software, said that with more than three-quarters of the U.S. population now carrying cellphones, wireless carriers will shift their focus from trying to sign new subscribers to pushing new services, such as mobile TV and music services, which use data service packages and can help the carriers increase revenues.

"What's happening is that voice is coming down because of family plans," said Tole Hart, a research director at Gartner. "There are more on there, and they're not paying as much."

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