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Originally published Monday, September 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Cellphones emerge as local-search tool

Say you've touched down in a new city and are craving a three-bean burrito with hot sauce, but you have no idea where to go. That predicament may be...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Say you've touched down in a new city and are craving a three-bean burrito with hot sauce, but you have no idea where to go.

That predicament may be a little easier to solve with announcements today by InfoSpace and Action Engine. The releases are tied to the start of CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2005, an industry conference designed to preview upcoming mobile-phone products. The show, at San Francisco's Moscone Center, starts tomorrow and runs through Thursday.

The applications by Action Engine and InfoSpace fall into the category of local search, an area promising to help consumers find information relevant to what they are doing at a given time and place. It ranges from the practical — where's the nearest Italian restaurant? — to the more banal — where's the nearest bathroom?

Many companies believe the category will be as successful as search on a personal computer is today, but unlike with the PC, advertising models are still evolving for the mobile phone.

In October, Bellevue-based InfoSpace will roll out a downloadable application that helps users easily navigate a slew of content on the phone.

Consumers will have to pay for the application, but eventually InfoSpace hopes for a model in which merchants will pay when a user clicks on information about that merchant, said Joe Herzog, InfoSpace's director of emerging products.

Herzog said that InfoSpace will not support a model in which advertisers pay to be at the top of the list a common practice in PC searches — because consumers would find that irritating, especially since such listings could clutter the mobile phone's small screen.

InfoSpace is not saying on which carrier the service will launch or how much it will cost.

Smart searches

The application is organized to predict what you might be searching for. Under restaurants, for instance, it lists fast food, coffee houses, Italian or Mexican, cutting the number of steps the user takes to arrive at the final result.

The software knows your location through global positioning (the phone must have the capability) or location based on a cellphone tower connection.

Herzog said most people today get this kind of information by paying an average of $1.43 for a 411 call, making directory information a $2 billion-a-year industry in the United States.

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"That's a huge market to tap into," he said. "These applications and others will be additional access points."

Redmond-based Action Engine is offering a slightly different service — a platform to help users easily find information without having to type in a lot of information or spend time waiting for the phone browser to connect.

Chief Executive Scott Silk said the time savings is significant because you use drop-down menus instead of keying in letters. It also asks a series of questions before connecting to the network, leading to fewer waits.

"You can book a flight in 45 seconds," he said.

Big opportunity

Although Action Engine has had a software platform for some time, it has changed over the year since Silk became CEO. It was originally built on Microsoft's core mobile operating system, a growing but small market. Today, Action Engine is announcing that the platform has been rebuilt for Java, a more common programming language in the mobile arena.

The company also built applications on top of the platform, allowing users to find movie times, book flights and more. The service, called Action Info, is available for a subscription on some Sprint and Verizon Wireless phones. As of today, the application, called Action Info, is available directly through the home screen of the newly launched Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC 6700 phone by Sprint.

Julie Ask, a research analyst at Jupiter, said she thinks local search will become a big opportunity for wireless companies, but not immediately.

According to Jupiter surveys, she said, 20 percent of consumers pay for information via 411, and even fewer, 7 percent, pay for local search.

"It is the time to get in and learn and cut your teeth. If you don't, you are going to be left behind," she said.

A small market

M:Metrics, a Seattle research company, also is finding that it's a small market. Only 7.6 percent — or 13.8 million of the 181 million subscribers in the United States — accessed restaurant information in the three months ended in June. Slightly more, 15.8 million, connected to a Web search.

InfoSpace acknowledged that it could take a while for consumers to adopt the technology, but that process could accelerate as the applications become easier to use. Up to now, a search on a mobile phone has worked more like a PC search.

InfoSpace CEO Jim Voelker said it can't be likened to searching on the PC today. When he was in San Francisco recently, he said that he searched for movie theaters nearby. When using InfoSpace's application, he found the nearest theater and a list of movie times. On a competing search service, he received 27,000 results.

"It's interesting, but not useful," he said.

Silk said Action Engine already has seen some success, with 1,000 downloads and subscribers who pay $49.95 a year for the service.

"I think local search could be a killer mobility application," he said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

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