AOL intros browsing, lifts mobile services

America Online Inc. (AOL) introduced on Monday new and enhanced mobile services, including new mobile browsing that adapts regular Web pages to mobile screens, as the provider of online services and content competes for wireless Internet users.

AOL, which built its business by providing dial-up Internet access, has been trying in recent years to expand beyond this mature market in various ways, including by boosting its mobile offerings.

As online services and content for mobile devices increase, the popularity of cell phones for accessing the Internet rises. In a study it co-sponsored and the results of which were made public Monday, AOL found that among adult U.S. cell phone users, 52 per cent keep their phones turned on all the time. The study also found significant demand today in the U.S. for mobile versions of online services like mapping, text messaging, photo taking, games, e-mail, Web search and Web browsing.

It’s no surprise then that all major providers of portal and search services are jockeying for position in the mobile market, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp.’s MSN and Yahoo Inc., as well as AOL, which announced on Monday at the CTIA Wireless 2006 conference that it is adding the mobile browsing service to its mobile portal. That way, regular Web pages, not just those formatted for mobile screens, can be properly rendered on mobile devices, according to AOL.

AOL, a Time Warner Inc. subsidiary based in Dulles, Virginia, also announced on Monday an expansion of its partnership with Sprint Nextel Corp. to provide AOL’s mobile portal services to all Sprint mobile subscribers in the U.S. AOL’s mobile portal includes a search engine, the AIM instant messaging service, AOL Mail, AOL Pictures and news, entertainment and weather content.

Meanwhile, AOL’s online mapping unit MapQuest announced it plans to provide a mobile service that will provide spoken driving directions to users. Called MapQuest Navigator, the service is expected to become available via U.S. cell phone providers later this year.

MapQuest also announced that it now has a version of its Web site specially formatted for mobile devices, which users can access by going to this Web site .

This is the latest push by AOL in the mobile Internet space. Last year, it launched several mobile search services via its Web site , including its AOL Search general Web search engine, its Pinpoint Shopping comparison shopping engine and its AOL Yellow Pages listing of local businesses.

There isn’t much revenue currently in the mobile Internet market for Web portal and search engine operators, but they know they have to claim a space now, said Julie Ask, a Jupiter Research analyst. “It’s important for them to be in the mobile game today,” she said. “Users are starting to form habits.”

In the U.S., about 10 percent of cell phone service subscribers engaged in mobile browsing in the past six months, she said. That amounts to between 20 million and 25 million subscribers. However, that is expected to grow in coming years, along with the revenue opportunity, as the mobile Internet experience improves, she said.

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