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Thursday, March 29, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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CTIA Wireless 2007 | Mobile-search players still finding their way

Seattle Times technology reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. — When you enter the word bush into a search engine, you could be looking for information on the president, a rock band or shrubbery for the garden.

The ambiguity is not a big deal in the online computer world, where adding more words can easily narrow a search, or you can scan an entire page of results to find the right reference.

In the mobile world, it's not so simple.

Brendan Benzing, vice president of mobile search at Bellevue-based InfoSpace, used that example during a panel discussion Wednesday at CTIA Wireless 2007 to emphasize the challenge of searching on the mobile phone.

The hurdles have created a cottage industry in the wireless world made up of a handful of small companies and Internet search giants Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft, making mobile search one of the hottest topics at the convention.

While Yahoo! and Google have made announcements at the show, the smaller companies participated in a panel discussion about the market's intricacies and the potential it holds.

The participants included six industry players, among them Benzing and representatives of two other local companies: Brian Lent, chief executive at Seattle-based Medio Systems, and Tom Trinneer, vice president of marketing at Bellevue-based SNAPin.

Microsoft is also at the show, demonstrating its Windows Live services.

Both camps — big and small — are being aggressive. The giants hope to leverage their strengths online to gain acceptance in mobile. The smaller players hope to grab market share by being fast and creative and by catering specifically to wireless technology.

Many believe opportunities will be huge, based on the simple fact there are more mobile phones in the world than PCs.

In January, Yahoo! launched two forms of mobile search: an application that's downloaded to the phone and another one accessed through the mobile browser.

Tuesday, it disclosed it has systems in place to increase the amount of content associated with the applications and to make it easier to find and to make money off of it, said Lee Ott, Yahoo! director of product strategy.

Ott showed off Yahoo!'s mobile oneSearch and how it's different than Yahoo! on the Web.

For instance, if you search for Apple, results will be based on the computer company, not the fruit. If you search for pizza, it's assumed you are looking for a restaurant nearby.

In a situation that might not be clear, like Paris, oneSearch will return results based on the city and the celebrity.

"We are taking the PC and retooling it to take advantage of what is uniquely mobile," Ott said.

Although Google didn't make a formal announcement at the show, Yael Shacham, its mobile-product manager, posted information on Google's blog about its initiatives.

She wrote that the company's new mobile-search application is now openly available to everyone. The next time you visit google.com on your phone, you'll see a link that will take you to a tailored mobile-search result.

One big challenge in mobile search is defining it. When looking for something on the phone, users may want to search for a ringtone or wallpaper or find a restaurant nearby.

They also may want generally available information found on the Web.

Mobile-search companies want to build the most relevant platforms, so that users don't have to communicate their intentions with each search.

The other major difference between online and mobile comes with service providers.

Internet service providers act as a pipe that runs invisibly in the background.

Wireless carriers are gatekeepers that have spent billions building networks, attracting customers and keeping them.

The dynamic is causing carriers to ask how they can make money on mobile search.

"We have not completed the analysis or the business plan, but we recognize there is a huge opportunity and potentially multiple sets of partners in the equation," said Mark Collins, AT&T vice president of long-term products and services.

Dan Olschwang, president of JumpTap, a Cambridge, Mass., mobile-search company, said during the panel discussion that the strength of a carrier partnering with a smaller company will ensure its brand is dominant and that the carrier gets a piece of the ad revenue that comes with search results.

He said wireline carriers — many of which provide Internet access for PCs — missed out on that opportunity years ago, with Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft raking in most of the advertising revenue.

"Some people say we are crazy for going head on with those guys [Google and Yahoo!]," Olschwang said, adding that if Google wins, " I think the prime losers will be the wireless carriers in the industry."

Medio Systems' Lent agreed. "If you paid for the infrastructure, the handset, the spectrum and the customer care, that's not an asset to give over to another brand," he said.

"They [carriers] are cooperative and see what is at stake here. There are roles that Yahoo! and Google can play. It's not either-or."

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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