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A Practical Internet for Your Phone

A new startup combines multiple Web services in order to painlessly glean a simple answer from the Internet.
February 28, 2007

In theory, at least, Internet access on cell phones is a useful thing. However, the slow speed at which Web pages load, their small formats, and the phones’ clunky interface collectively make extracting information from the Internet excruciating. But now a new startup based in Cupertino, CA, called Mobio aims to directly connect cell-phone users to the information they want, allowing them to bypass Web browsers.

Instant Internet: Mobio, a startup based in Cupertino, CA, will offer cell-phone applications called widgets that allow people to access the Web in quick and specific ways. In the image above, a restaurant widget shows local eateries and open-table times. One can also use this widget to reserve a table and view a map of the restaurant.

This week, Mobio will introduce its first product: a suite of free, downloadable “widgets” for cell phones. These widgets can collect real-time information from a number of different Web services–for instance, mapping services and directory listings for restaurants–and combine them into a simple program on a phone. Mobio’s suite features nine collections of 50 widgets, including ones that give quick access to the phone numbers of local cab services and locksmiths, ones that provide maps to local restaurants that are open late, and ones that let a person buy movie tickets and book a table at a restaurant.

The idea behind widgets isn’t new, of course. Apple’s OS X operating system has offered them for years, letting people track sports scores, compare gas prices, and search the Web, all without using a browser. And recently, a number of established companies and startups have been working to put the same sort of capabilities on cell phones. Nokia, for example, offers a collection of feed services called WidSets that let people get blog updates and see recently posted Flickr pictures. A startup called Plusmo, based in San Jose, CA, offers a similar service. Both Nokia and Plusmo’s applications, however, draw from a single source at a time.

What distinguishes Mobio, says Sanjeev Sardana, the vice president of products, is that its widgets show information and provide access to a combination of disparate services. The information is provided by partners such as OpenTable, an online reservation service. The information is then collected on Mobio’s server; combined with other services, such as directory listings and an online map; and downloaded by phones that have Mobio’s software. Mobio acts, in effect, like the middleman, aggregating the useful data from around the Web and dispensing it to phones over the cellular network.

To get the widgets, individuals need to register themselves and their cell phone on Mobio’s website. Following authorization, the software will be downloaded to a person’s phone. Depending on the network connection, this should take about a minute.

It’s not easy to manage the data that is streamed to and stored on resource-constrained gadgets such as mobile phones. However, Sardana believes that Mobio’s technology addresses some of the major technological challenges. For one, the data that’s sent over the network is compressed by the server software so that it doesn’t eat up as much bandwidth, which makes it faster to update. Additionally, only the information that’s needed for a specific query is sent. For instance, if someone is leaving a movie for which he or she reserved tickets using a widget and wants to find a restaurant nearby, that individual won’t need to reenter his or her location information. The data from the movie transaction is used by the application to locate the individual at that time; the restaurant widget then searches for eateries near the theater.

Mobio’s widgets currently only work on phones in the Cingular, Sprint, and T-mobile networks, and only if they’re Java-enabled, although the company expects that future versions of the software will be compatible with Windows Mobile and Blackberry. This somewhat limited availability highlights one of the challenges of offering Web services to mobile phones, says Daniel Dailey, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “It’s hard to have client software run on all the phones,” he says.

Sardana thinks that in the future, the widgets could take advantage of real-time location information provided by the phone. Existing applications were designed with GPS in mind, but the location-based feature will have to wait until more phones have the capability. “As more handsets become GPS-enabled,” Sardana says, “then we will seamlessly blend that into our applications.”

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