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As Internet companies look for new revenue streams and customers, they see particularly fertile ground among the millions of cell-phone users. The Yankee Group reports that 65% of the U.S. population owns a cell phone. And increasingly, cell phones are becoming highly customizable and personalized devices that can be used for more than just phone calls, including E-mail, video streaming, and even Internet browsing.
Because people spend so much time on their cell phones, Internet companies are jumping on the opportunity by introducing more Web-browsing features to cell phone users. "There is a huge community of people reliant on portals like Google search on their personal computers," says Yankee Group analyst Linda Barrabee. "Extending that to mobile phones, which people always have when they're on the go, makes a lot of sense."
Several vendors today offer mobile browsing capabilities on cell phones, including Access, Nokia, Openwave Systems, and Opera Software. Many of these browsers are based on the Wireless Application Protocol, which features the Wireless Markup Language, a simplified version of HTML for small-screen displays. But WML offers limited memory and limits the kind of Web pages that can be accessed on a mobile device because it's not true HTML, Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin says.
However, recent efforts by America Online and the Mozilla Foundation, an open-source company that develops Web browser and E-mail software, have been geared toward making the Internet-browsing experience easier for cell-phone users.
Mozilla this week released a technology preview of a mobile-phone browser that uses the same code base as its Firefox browser for desktops. Mozilla has developed a set of XML tags for describing graphical user interfaces. "We're optimizing the browser so that the Web-surfing experience on a smaller screen can be truly similar to the desktop," says Doug Turner, lead engineer at Mozilla.
AOL is testing a suite of AOL Mobile Search Services that promise to give users access to all Web content, not just WAP-enabled pages. Search results also are formatted to the cell-phone screen and links are clickable. Himesh Bhise, VP and general manager, says AOL is trying to get users "accustomed to a behavior that is not common outside the desktop."
AOL is customizing its search services to make them easier to use on a mobile phone. Users don't want to do the same kind of searches they do on the PC because cell-phone screens aren't big enough, the "click-and-wait" time is too long, and they're paying for time on the network, Barrabee says.
In the past six months, there have been increased efforts by other Internet companies such as Google, MSN, and Yahoo to offer better search capabilities on mobile devices, Barrabee says. For example, they offer a Short Message Service that lets users text-message queries using a cell phone and receive answers back also in text-message format. AOL, MSN, and Yahoo also are working with the major carriers to extend other desktop-based applications to cell phones, including instant messaging and E-mail.
With more than half of the U.S. population using cell phones, Internet companies are trying find ways of weaning people's Internet habits from their desktops to their cell phones. Says Barrabee, "It's a new revenue stream for these players."