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Originally published October 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 23, 2007 at 4:35 PM

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Taking a Whrrl at CTIA show

Nearly two years ago, Jeff Holden left Amazon.com to start a company called Pelago in the cabana behind his Seattle house. Today, his company of...

Seattle Times technology reporter

SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly two years ago, Jeff Holden left Amazon.com to start a company called Pelago in the cabana behind his Seattle house.

Today, his company of 35 employees in downtown Seattle is launching its mobile product at this year's CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment Show in San Francisco. The show officially starts today with an expected 15,000 attendees.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer is expected to kick off the event this morning with a keynote presentation featuring a new server designed to help a company manage Windows Mobile phones similarly to laptops and PCs.

Ballmer will also introduce Enterprise Mobile, a company Microsoft invested in that supports businesses in buying phones.

The CTIA show focuses on both the enterprise and entertainment side of the mobile business. While Ballmer is addressing the enterprise, Pelago is an example of a company with a consumer product.

After months of head-down development work, Pelago is introducing Whrrl, a product that spans the Internet and the mobile phone, and possibly can be best described as a mix between Facebook and CitySearch's online directory services.

"The ideas are simple but powerful," Holden said.

Holden, who met Jeff Bezos working at a hedge fund in New York, chose to follow the Amazon founder and CEO to Seattle to join the company in May 1997, just before the e-commerce giant's initial public offering.

During his last four years at Amazon, Holden worked on consumer initiatives, calling it a "petri dish of experimentation."

He said it was difficult to decide to leave, but he wanted to build something from scratch. So, with no more experience in mobile technology than a consumer who likes to fiddle with gadgets, he started a wireless company.

"I looked at mobile and saw an opportunity for someone just like me," he said. "The consumer experience had not caught up to what the devices can do."

Holden founded the company with Darren Erik Vengroff, an engineer at Amazon, raising $7.4 million in November from top-notch venture capitalists such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Trilogy Equity Partners and Bezos' Bezos Expeditions.

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To get an idea of how Whrrl works, imagine a computer showing a map of all the restaurants in downtown Seattle, and each one is ranked by your friends. A green dot means positive; red is negative.

If a friend has visited but not rated a restaurant, it's been "touched," something Holden calls voting with your feet.

Holden says the system basically is a database of where your friends would tell you to go if you asked for recommendations. Having the information on the computer or on your phone makes it more efficient and spontaneous.

The task is not trivial. Pelago hired a team in the Philippines to collect all the restaurant information, including address, phone number, operating hours and whether it has a happy hour.

And because users can be fickle about writing reviews or updating their restaurant visits, Pelago plans to tie in GPS on the mobile phone to determine where the person has been. Under this version, with permission from users, the system records their moves, even noting whether they passed a Starbucks or entered one.

Once the users return to their computers, the information would be loaded into their account, allowing them to quickly rate and write reviews.

Pelago imagines expanding the service to add events, venues and more, and it expects to launch applications in Facebook and MySpace to leverage those networks.

The services are free. When the GPS version is available, Pelago plans to charge a monthly fee. It also is looking to add targeted advertising as a revenue source.

What Pelago will not do is deliver ads to the mobile phone based on a person's location. For some time, the industry has envisioned sending an ad for a coffee shop to your phone as you pass by.

Whrrl is not that, Holden promises.

"I hate that model. In-your-face push ads are not a good experience," he said.

A number of other local companies plan to make announcements at CTIA today. Here's a sampling:

Microsoft is expected to make several announcements during Ballmer's keynote. One is the unveiling of the Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 to help companies manage Windows Mobile phones through such network services as delivering new applications over the air or allowing workers to connect securely to their desktops using mobile virtual private networks.

In addition, Microsoft is announcing an investment in Enterprise Mobile, a Boston company.

Enterprise Mobile will build, deploy and manage customized services based on the Windows Mobile operating system. It will work with various mobile operators and phone manufacturers in offering these services to business customers.

Medio Systems, which is building a mobile-phone search technology, is launching a new search service for media companies that have mobile Web sites. The Seattle company said CBS Mobile is adding Medio's search bar to its site to allow people to quickly look for CBS content on the phone. Ads will be displayed with search results.

RealNetworks has a new service for wireless carriers to offer consumers. The Seattle company currently sells ringbark tones — songs that play while a person is trying to reach someone — through its acquisition of Widerthan. It plans to launch multimedia ringbarks, where a video with music plays on those calls.

Analisa Roberts, RealNetworks' senior director for marketing and planning and analysis, said that with so many people using headsets to talk on the phone, the mobile-phone screen becomes a way to send a message.

Amdocs, which owns Seattle-based Qpass and Open market, expects to make two announcements today. Qpass found in a poll that 41 percent of mobile users 18 to 24 in the U.S. and 38 percent who are 25 to 32 are willing to spend $8 to $10 a month on mobile content.

Open market said it is launching a newer version of its platform that helps process financial transactions on the mobile phone. Version 2.0 is modeled after systems used by credit card clearing houses and online retailers.

Ontela says Cellular South will start using the Seattle company's picture-delivery service, which allows people to automatically save camera-phone photos to their home computers or Web albums. The service will be available to Cellular South subscribers in November for $2.99 a month for unlimited picture transfers.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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