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Friday, September 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New cellphone services take "personalization" to the next level

Seattle Times technology reporter

SAN FRANCISCO — Fans no longer have to miss the winning play of the game.

ESPN is launching a sports-driven mobile phone service that targets fans by providing video and news on the go.

The idea and others like it are taking to the next level the concept of "personalization," which until now has meant ringtones and cellphone-display wallpapers.

The loudest buzz at the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment Show, which ended yesterday, was that the cellphone is your accessory and should reflect who you are, whether you're a sports nuts or a teenage girl. Executives from a range of wireless companies, from content providers to carriers, stressed the importance of thinking about mobile phones and devices differently than the Internet or TV.

"You really own them at the personal level, not the household level," said Manish Jha, ESPN Mobile's senior vice president and general manager.

Len Lauer, Sprint Nextel's chief operating officer, told a room full of conference attendees yesterday that Sprint is an entertainment company. It was his way of stressing the importance of where the industry was going.

"The great thing about mobility is that you can look at customers and see their mobile phone as part of their lifestyle," he said.

Sprint is doing that in a couple of ways, he said.

Through a relationship with the NFL, you can sign up for quarterly updates on your favorite team. At the end of a game, you get audio and video of the top 10 plays.

For another market — youth — Sprint offers a brand called Boost Mobile, phones with services for a young budget. It operates on Nextel's network.

Mobile ESPN is attempting personalization by launching its own phone service. It starts with the phone, a sleek black design with red ESPN lettering. All the characters and numbers are in ESPN's recognizable typeface.

Inside, the content can be changed so that information about favorite teams and players is one click away.

Users can also track their fantasy sports leagues and receive alerts when a player is injured, so they can shore up their team.

Mobile ESPN is to launch before the holidays on a limited basis, then more broadly in February. ESPN will be the carrier but will ride on top of Sprint's network.

The arrangement is something other brands may consider as customization grows even more.

"We are not all things to all people, but we can be everything to the fan," Jha said.

Cingular Wireless' announcement earlier this week that RealNetworks will help launch a TV service called OnlineTV was also about customization.

Jim Ryan, Cingular's vice president of consumer data services, said he sees mobile phones as personal devices tailored to each individual.

Ryan, a New York Giants fan, said he wants his phone set up to easily retrieve the football information he wants.

"We want to give people an unique experience," he said.

Personalization is happening with mobile more than other media outlets because it is technically possible, said Janet Hall, vice president of marketing and solutions-development for consultants TMNG.

"There's no question that we are going from a broadcast world to a narrowcast world," she said. "Every indication is that the technology that is rolling out will make it economical to target an individual."

Kanishka Agarwal, a vice president of new products at Telephia, which measures mobile-phone usage, said personalization has been happening for a long time.

But he offered a word of caution as companies scramble to do more: It has to be a quality experience to keep people coming back.

"You have to find a way to make people pay money for personalization," he said. "You have to find a way to get them and then keep them happy."

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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