Vodafone announces location-based services, Google deal

Standing on the corner of Main Street and looking for a restaurant? On the bus and desperate to find out about practically anything? If you've got a mobile phone from Vodafone Group PLC your problems could be solved, thanks to two announcements made Tuesday by a division of the U.K.-based phone company.

Vodafone Global Platform and Internet Services (VGP) said that it will license technology from AirFlash Inc. to build a suite of location-based services for its mobile phone customers. Location-based services offer information about restaurants, movies and directions determined by a customer's location.

Secondly, VGP struck a deal with search engine company Google Inc. to use Google as the search engine for VGP's mobile Internet customers. Google boasts more than 1.3 billion Web pages in its engine, as well as a Web directory, newsgroup access and wireless services.

No financial terms were disclosed for either deal, according to representatives of both companiesThe announcements bulk up the offerings of Vodafone's mobile Internet portal Vizzavi. In addition to the new services added Tuesday, Vizzavi offers Vodafone customers alerts, news, weather and sports information, horoscopes, financial information and a planner.

SmartZone is a Java-based platform for quickly developing location-based services, said J.F. Sullivan, vice president of marketing at AirFlash. SmartZone includes more than 1,000 pre-built components that can deployed as is, or be stitched together in new ways by the customer, he said. That approach led one company to be able to deploy fully functional services in as few as 10 days, he said. SmartZone customers include Orange PLC, Knight Ridder Inc. and AT&T Corp.'s PocketNet service.

Location-based services, such as those offered by AirFlash, "could definitely become popular with consumers and business and potentially (have) a lot of applications," said Eric Rasmussen, senior consultant at the research firm TeleChoice Inc.

However, there are a number of kinks that need to be worked out that are likely beyond Vodafone's control, he said, including handset sizes and users' ability to be able to find the information they seek within three to four screens of searching. If these issue are resolved, however, this could be a great service, he said.

The deal with Google addresses some of these very concerns, according to Rasmussen, who describes himself as a "big fan" of the company. Google is "a very good fit" for mobile services because the site is "very fast and very accurate" and gets users the information they seek quickly, he said.

Screen size and ease of use are not the key problems, according to AirFlash's Sullivan. Rather, companies need to figure out what non-technical users want to use. "Once you build something everyone wants to use, everything solves itself," he said.

Tuesday's announcement is the latest in a string of wireless deals for Google. The company launched a version of its search engine for NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s hit I-mode service, in late February and inked a deal to provide search capabilities for Yahoo Inc.'s wireless offerings. And we should expect more wireless tie-ups for Google this quarter, Krane said: "We're not done."

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