Mobile Search Struggles to Find an Audience

Traction is still small, but Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves and others still see a future for mobile search.

SAN FRANCISCO—Long-suffering sports fans dismiss each disappointing season with the lament "wait until next year."

The cell phone industry is no different when it comes to getting people to use their handsets Internet connection to search the Web.

Despite a bevy of new technology and services, searching the Internet using cell phones is, for the umpteenth year in a row, still a "next year" industry, according to interviews with executives here attending a major cell phone trade show, CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment 2005.

"Theres not a ton going on," said Dan McGuire, chief executive of Ampd Mobile, a cell phone operator targeting the lucrative teen-age and young adult market. "Its not really a user friendly feature."

The problem is a confounding one. Americans are lapping up cell phone text messaging, photos and streaming video, which are all clones of features they spend lots of time doing on their home PCs.

Yet search—the No. 1 reason people use the Internet to begin with—has failed miserably to make this jump from big-to-small screen in the five years since the feature was first introduced.

The most oft-cited reason here for searchs cell phone failure is the phone itself. Typing in any information, like a Web address or a search inquiry, using a phones cramped keypad is a chore many people arent willing to put up with.

Handset makers have tried to ease the thumb strain using any number of innovations, such as adding miniature QWERTY keyboards, or software, to complete words as they are typed. But it has obviously not been enough.

Also, a phones screen size limits the number of search results that are returned, making the experience both difficult and lacking a payoff for all the work involved.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about Googles plans to target phone search.

Should providers cut bait and move on? No way, say executives interviewed here, because the payoff is potentially to big to ignore for providers of search results.

By adapting to cell phones, search providers are able to do something that theyve never done before: charge a kind of a per-use fee. When reached using a home PC, Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves and other search engines freely dispense search results and rely on advertising for most of their revenue.

Theres also some glimmer of hope that Americans may soon start googling from their handsets.

Executives here note a recent surge in the use of features to locate a local business or restaurant. Also, corporations have been investing more heavily in cell phone search features to help in the day-to-day management of employees.

Its only a matter of time before this smattering of usage evolves into more mainstream use.

"These are early days for search on cell phones," said Karen Carter, Microsofts director of global communications for the companys mobile and embedded devices division.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about search on cell phones.

But, typically, itll take time. In the next few weeks, search could get the boost it needs: a cell phone operator called Ampd Mobile debuts with what it says is a cutting edge new search feature.

Its getting noticed because Ampd Mobiles audience is meant to be young adults, which historically have been more willing to try a new cell phone feature.

This same market segment was the first to use cell phone text messaging and camera phones, which are now big revenue generators. So why not search?

Yet, the feature will remain less of a focus, even at Ampd, CEO McGuire said.

"Search is an important feature," he said. "But its not the most important for us."

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