AOL Enhances Mobile Phone Offerings

AOL on Monday announced several improvements to its mobile offerings, including an enhancement to its mobile search service that would format any page for the mobile screen, an expanded relationship with Sprint, and new mobile applications.

Through a new "Surf the Web" feature included within AOL Mobile Search, users would be able to view any standard Web page through a special transcoding feature. AOL Wireless Director of Emerging Technologies Raine Bergstrom told BetaNews that pages have a similar structure that allows this to be done.

"We're not just re-rendering, but reorganizing as well," he explained.

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Bergstrom said most, if not all pages will initially be rendered using the automatic system, and would change based on necessity. The technology AOL is using comes from InfoGin, a company that specializes in mobile adaptation solutions.

However, Berstrom did admit that, "one size does not fit all." Thus, in some cases, AOL would create a template for pages where the automatic rendering does not render correctly.

Along with the search enhancements, AOL also announced an expansion of its relationship with mobile carrier Sprint Nextel. While most of the mobile IM technologies are publicly available to other providers, the carrier will also provide a downloadable version of the AIM application that is not based on text messaging.

Other services, such as Verizon, T-Mobile and Cingular, may have separate applications on the phone, but the AIM communication is based on text messaging. Sprint, on the other hand, offers an application that connects to the AIM network directly.

"Sprint charges a monthly reoccurring charge. What we're finding is that it drives a totally different usage model," Bergstrom said. Customers, not worrying about text message charges, end up sending many more messages through the service, he explained.

While AOL has begun to talk up offering AIM in a client-based model, it is not forcing it upon carriers. Mobile providers have the final decision in how to implement mobile instant messaging, the company says.

At the moment, the application is only available for Java-based phones, however AOL and Sprint have plans to eventually offer Windows Mobile and Palm OS-based versions of the client through the monthly fee method.

Those interested in client-based instant messaging will have to spend about $20 USD through mobile application providers like Handango. Bergstrom explained the seemingly high cost is due to the product's target -- enterprise users -- where cost is not a major factor.

Bergstrom said AOL expects most providers to opt for the monthly fee method, as in the end it makes better financial sense for both carrier and America Online itself.

Finally, AOL on Monday introduced three new java-based applications: CityGuide, Moviefone, and MapQuest mobile. Using the GPS technology within phones, these applications would be location-specific.

For example, CityGuide could list what restaurants and attractions are around a user, and the "best" locations just like the CityGuide Web site. Similarly, the Moviefone application would allow a user to see what's playing in local movie threaters, and the MapQuest application could provide directions to those locations.

Again, AOL's focus will be on Java phones initially, but it is working on porting the applications to other platforms over the next several months.

In the end, Bergstrom said AOL's work in the industry underscores the improvement of cellular technology overall, as well as the increasing usefulness of owning a mobile phone. "Phones are becoming more usable," he said.

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