Yahoo! Japan Selects MCN for Vertical Search on Mobile

Mobile Content Networks, Inc. (MCN) was selected to power music search on the Yahoo! Japan mobile site. This is the first of several vertical search channels to be launched on Yahoo! Japan. The MCN search box and channels are independent of general, "horizontal search" on the Yahoo! Japan site.

MCN competes against JumpTap, Medio, Fast/InfoSpace and, in fact, Yahoo! with carriers. But marketing SVP Stephen Burke stresses that the company can work with any number of players, including those competitors and can integrate and "federate" their content and/or advertising. Think of it as mobile "meta-search."

Burke says MCN does mobile search better and cheaper than anyone. However, unlike other parties, the company doesn't offer a mobile index. Instead MCN taps directly into content sources, which it characterizes as "federated search." Burke said the company abandoned its mobile index approach a few years ago after discovering that it was "too expensive" and couldn't accommodate all the mobile content being developed.

Burke also told me that there will be a number of announcements coming in the next several weeks and months.

iPhone Faces Likely Tepid Reaction in Japan

This BusinessWeek article speculates about the prospects for the iPhone in Japan, which it characterizes as the world's most advanced mobile market. It details the ways in which the iPhone won't impress Japanese mobile users and how it's already inferior to existing Japanese phones in many respects:

In its current form, the iPhone doesn't work on Japan's advanced third-generation, or 3G, network. Rumors abound that Steve Jobs & Co. will release a new, faster 3G iPhone next year. But analysts are skeptical that will be enough to please consumers in Japan. In its current form, the iPhone's 3.5-inch touchscreen and its access to online applications such as YouTube and Google Maps are about all that set it apart from other handsets in Japan.

In other ways, the device is inferior, and some of its functions won't be all that useful. The iPhone's Wi-Fi networking, for instance, won't get much of a workout since few Japanese retailers are wired for such short-range broadband wireless Internet service. "I don't think it's going to do that well," says Makio Inui, a managing director at UBS in Tokyo. He predicts the iPhone's high price and limited features will be a turnoff for many in Japan.

Yet in the US and many European markets the iPhone does represent a dramatic advance over what has existed in the way of mobile user experiences. In addition to the persistent question about whether the future of mobile will be about the "carrier deck" or "off deck," there's the related question of whether HTML rendering for mobile (Safari, Opera Mini and the forthcoming Mozilla browser) will become increasingly mainstream or whether WAP will predominate.

It's also the case that while some mobile trends in Japan and Asia may come to pass in Europe and the US, one cannot look to these markets as direct "roadmaps" for what will happen in the West. Cultural, economic and competitive variables prevent that from being the case.

Smartphones Gaining in U.S. Popularity

This article from MarketWatch offers a survey of an increasing number of smartphone options for US consumers. This Bloomberg piece discusses American's increasing willingness to splurge on the pricer handsets. Indeed, smartphone sales are growing (now representing about 12% of the market). We also know from empirical research that smartphone users access the mobile Internet more and search with greater frequency than non-smartphone users.

The question of how mainstream smartphones will eventually become is an interesting one. It's partly dependent on intangible cultural factors like buzz and fashion, which are helping drive iPhone sales, in addition to function. But perhaps the biggest determinant of smartphone sales is price.

Most smartphones retail for hundreds of dollars, but the Palm Centro is $99 and the LG Rumor is only $50, both with a two-year subscription. If the prices come down, we'll see more smartphones in the market -- with direct implications for mobile Internet adoption.

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Related: Apple is expected to announce sales of 5 million units of the iPhone at the forthcoming MacWorld event. That's ahead of schedule. Apparently Xmas demand for the devices remains very strong despite the anticipated announcement of a 3G phone early next year.

Yahoo! Does Wireless Carrier Deal in Latin America

This morning Yahoo announced that it had inked another major wireless distribution deal, this time with Latin American wireless services provider America Movil. Yahoo's oneSearch "will be the default mobile search service on America Movil's wireless carriers' portals," which cover 16 countries and roughly 143 million mobile subscribers in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In response to a question I posed about the advertising component of the deal, a Yahoo spokesperson said:

Yahoo will work with each AMX affiliate (regional carrier) to determine the advertising model that best supports their efforts. Yahoo will be integrating their "consumables" content (aka ringtones, wall papers etc), as well as tailoring the mobile search experience to best suit consumers in the individual countries.

The America Movil deal follows a series of operator partnership announcements that include a wide range of Asian carriers and one with Telefonica that spans 15 countries in Europe and Latin America.

These global carrier (and several OEM) relationships either mean Yahoo Go will be preloaded or oneSearch will be on the so-called "carrier deck." That arguably gives Yahoo more direct access to mobile consumers and reach than its main rivals. However, one of the outstanding questions is whether the carrier deck will continue to hold sway over consumers as they become more sophisticated about the mobile Internet.

At least in the U.S., preliminary data from an iCrossing survey conducted earlier this year indicated that consumers were pursuing the major search sites on mobile devices "off deck." However, Yahoo is one of those sites too.

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Here's more from Reuters.

In the Future GPS Is Everywhere

People often talk about GPS or cell/WiFi triangulation being the "killer app" for mobile. That's not entirely true but these technologies do potentially improve the user experience and provide for better ad targeting to boot. However, GPS on consumer devices isn't limited to cellphones.

The in-car and personal navigation systems offer it. There's also an interesting device is from a company called Zoombak. The Zoombak device enables you to track a pet or your kids. These technologies are sold to people on the basis of "safety" but there are many interesting applications beyond safety per se. Sprint Family Locator is another such system being sold on the same general basis (using mobile phones).

The eventual ubiqutiy or near-ubiquity of location aware technologies on phones, personal nav devices and other portable techologies will create the infrastructure for "friend finding" and one flavor of mobile social networking. Of course, it could also be used to support nefarious government domestic surveillance and spying. (Merry Xmas.)

Lots and Lots of Bidders for 700MHz Spectrum

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the FCC has released the list of bidders for the 700MHz spectrum auction set to begin next month. Beyond the handful of players (AT&T, Verizon, Google, et al.) already reported, the list includes a whopping 266 firms or investors (96 of those applications were actually accepted.)

That number of bidders almost guarantees that the winning bid will exceed the $4.6 billion that Google said it was willing to put up (presumably that's not the ceiling for Google).

The WSJ speculates that the auction might fetch up to $15 billion for the spectrum licenses. Here's more from BusinessWeek.

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Related: Forbes reports on a further release and auction of wireless spectrum in the UK.

Retail Queries Popular on Mobile 411

Mobile search and DA provider V-Enable released data gathered from carrier partners between 11/23 and 12/7 about mobile 411 search activity in major U.S. metro areas (LA, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco and Dallas). Here are the "top retail searches" according to the company:

  1. Wal-Mart
  2. Target
  3. Game Stop
  4. Best Buy
  5. Walgreens
  6. Publix
  7. AutoZone
  8. KMart
  9. Toys R Us
  10. Blockbuster Video
  11. CVS
  12. Circuit City
  13. Home Depot
  14. Radio Shack
  15. Sears

What it shows in part is the power of these brands and the opportunity to bridge between the Internet and physical stores, using mobile, in terms of promotions and product inventory information.

4G Standards Battle Brewing, Will Consumers Care?

Fortune writes about the brewing 4G wireless standards battle. It's an interesting piece but the issue, as the article points out in the end, is about consumer demand for services like mobile video.

One of the top consumer complaints about the "mobile Internet" is that network speeds are too slow. Advanced mobile networks will help address that but there's also a very mundane issue here in the form of pricing. Many people currently do not have a mobile Internet plan. One reason is that they don't perceive a need, another is price.

Carriers and other content producers should not expect consumers to fork over money for premium services too much beyond what they're paying for mobile voice and data now. For example, people will NOT be willing to pay for voice, text messaging, mobile Internet -- and mobile TV. These services will all need to be bundled in a relatively affordable package to get consumers to bite, otherwise they'll just avoid things like mobile video or go to where they can get it for free.

Z2: Another Interesting Non-Phone Device

Z2

The new Z2 from Zipit Wireless allows users to send and receive text messages (connectivity not included) as well as store and view photos and play music. There's no browser that I'm aware of, but that would theoretically be possible. Relying on the popularity of IM with its target youth market, the company plans to charge $4.99 per month for roughly 3K messages, undercutting the text plans of wireless carriers.

I'm skeptical that the device has the right combination of features (it needs Internet, which could include VoIP) to gain broad adoption (cost: $149) but it's another interesting wireless device that has potential.

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The Kindle has reportedly sold out but the Internet browsing experience is apparently quite poor. I think that version 2.0 with a better Internet experience (and slightly different positioning) could make this device a mainstream success. The Internet is included (based on Sprint's 3G network), which is the most compelling part of the whole thing.

CallGenie in DA 'Category Search' Deal with AT&T

Here's the news from the release that went out this a.m.:

CallGenie, a leading provider of localized, voice-enabled search solutions to Yellow Pages publishers, directory assistance providers and wireless carriers, today announced that it has entered into an agreement with AT&T, in which Call Genie will provide its EVD (Enhanced Voice Directory) business category search product and related services to support the AT&T business category search feature. This feature will give users of AT&T directory assistance the opportunity to search by type of business in addition to searching by business name in the 9 Southeastern states.

CallGenie recently acquired mobile content provider and ad exchange PhoneSpots, as well as EU-based DA services provider BTSLogic.