Ask Jeeves developing wireless search service

Looking to provide yet another way for users to tap its search capabilities, Ask Jeeves Inc. is developing new wireless search services to be launched this year, according to a company executive.

Unlike competitors such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., Ask Jeeves currently doesn't offer a way for users to access its search engine via mobile devices, but that will change at some point before the end of 2005, said Daniel Read, Ask Jeeves' vice president of product management.

"In search today you have to offer several access points to provide a good search service for consumers, so we believe we have to be there in wireless search, and we'll be coming out with a mobile product this year," Read said.

Although Google, Yahoo and others have rolled out wireless search services, Ask Jeeves believes this segment of the search market is still in its early days, Read said. In developing its wireless search services, Ask Jeeves will focus on providing very specific information to queries and not try to replicate the conventional Web searching experience, given the nature of wireless communications and devices, he said.

"A lot of search players have put traditional Web search on to wireless devices, but most of the Web pages you want to go to aren't rendered properly on a wireless device screen. So we're looking at rolling out specific search services for the wireless device," he said. For example, likely information Ask Jeeves could make available from its search arsenal to wireless devices includes local business listings and maps, Read said.

"It's a very complex market," he said. "There are lots of different players involved. At the moment we're working out all the different strategic ways of looking at all those relationships and making sure we form the right partnerships and create ultimately products that are compelling for consumers. That's what really matters."

It's a logical move for search engines to extend their capabilities to the wireless market, as users increasingly demand the ability to conduct searches from multiple places and devices, said Allen Weiner, a Gartner Inc. analyst. "Over time, search has to be fairly ubiquitous," he said. For example, wireless search is convenient for people who are on the road and need to find information about a local business, he said.

However, several significant challenges exist for search engines as they plan wireless search offerings, Weiner said. First, search engines have to convince wireless carriers to get on board, which isn't easy considering that carriers currently are being presented with an excess of possible services they can carry, such as games and multiple messaging offerings, Weiner said. As carriers ponder what services they will offer and promote, search might get lost in the shuffle, he said. "The biggest issue is the carrier bottleneck," he said.

The second challenge is the business model for wireless search, such as determining what is the right way to charge users for these services, Weiner said. For example, if users are charged based on time spent conducting searches, that will clash with the way they are used to searching from their PCs, he said. "There's no other searching you do anywhere else in which you're limited by time. People are used to performing searches in a free-flow, free-form manner and now you'll be telling them the clock is ticking as they search," he said.

Last but not least is the issue of privacy and security, since searches will be conducted over a remote network, and particularly if a service is offered that lets users search their desktop PCs from the wireless device, Weiner said.

Beyond wireless searching, Ask Jeeves also has in the works a search service focused on digital music, Ask Jeeves' Read said. The Oakland, California, company believes there is a place for search engines in this market as users increasingly need help finding and retrieving music files on different platforms, such as the Web and mobile devices. "It's an area we're looking at actively," Read said.

The current challenge in the digital music market is resolving the users' desires to have flexibility and not be tied to a specific device, software or service with the vendors' attempts to keep users in one place, Read said. For a search experience to be fruitful and satisfying, users must feel that the results are comprehensive and were gathered impartially, he said. "If we're going to provide a music search experience, we need to bring those kinds of values to it," Read said.

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