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Forty-Eight Hours With Ask Mobile

On Friday I received a briefing on Ask Mobile (with GPS) and a demo phone with the application pre-installed. I now have three mobile devices that I'm carrying: a traditional cellphone, a Windows Mobile device and the Ask Mobile demo phone. It's quite a challenge to physically manage all these devices as I walk and drive around.

I've been testing Ask Mobile casually beside Google Maps for Windows Mobile, Microsoft's Live Search/Local Mobile application and WAP-based Yahoo oneSearch, which just rolled out yesterday to a broad range of Asian countries.

This post offers some preliminary reactions to Ask Mobile based on an initial weekend of testing. One big caveat: I haven't been able to test the sharing and social features, which are potentially most compelling aspect of the service, because Ask Mobile is not integrated with my contacts. (Almost anything in the application can be shared with your contacts.)

There are five modules or components currently on the application: contacts/sharing, directions, Citysearch, Evite, history/saved places. There's also nice mapping integration with directions and local search results. Ask plans to integrate other IAC content, including Match, Ticketmaster and other properties in the future. As I argued on my personal blog on Friday, this integration of IAC content on Ask Mobile is more successful in some ways than online.

J2me developers

But there's also an irony here: there's no Ask. Literally, Ask is the overarching brand of a mobile portal where Ask Web search is missing; there's no mobile Web search on Ask Mobile. Ask's WAP site has mobile Web search and also offers the ability to sort local search results (from Citysearch) by rating, something not available on Ask Mobile but which would be nice to see in future versions.

The Sanyo demo phone I received has a traditional keypad and requires "triple tapping." However, Ask Mobile attempts to minimize keystrokes through history, suggestions (which populate a list as a user types) and GPS. GPS is not, contrary to some reactions/perceptions in the market, a revelation that will transform the mobile experience. It's a helpful feature that is very useful with driving directions and avoids having to enter location in many cases. (There's a "near me" GPS option, which is also helpful for traveling or if you don't precisely know where you are.)

The two features I used the most in my weekend of testing were Citysearch local listings and directions. I found the turn-by-turn directions, which are voice-enabled, to be quite helpful and generally accurate. They adapt to user location via GPS. There are also several useful directions options: fastest route, avoid highways, walking and advanced. Advanced gives users different choices regarding the presentation and delivery of the information.

The Citysearch listings are the only source of local information. By contrast, Ask City online is a broader local search application that incorporates data from Citysearch and other sources into results. Citysearch is a fairly comprehensive but uneven database of local business listings; it's very strong in some categories and weaker in others. There were a couple of instances where I found business locations on the Google Maps application and in Live Local that I didn't find via Citysearch.

One nice feature of Ask Mobile is a menu that allows me, once I've located a business, to read Citysearch reviews (although reading full-text reviews on a small screen is difficult), call that business, get directions, share the listing or save it.

It must be said that none of the WAP search tools or applications I've used are perfect. Google's Maps application (unlike Google Maps online), for example, has no reviews or star ratings content to help me make decisions, although I love the maps themselves.

Ask Mobile will require a $9.99 monthly subscription service after an initial free trial. This is separate and apart, I believe, from any text messaging and/or mobile Internet access fees that the carrier charges. We'll see if that flies. Company representatives at Mapquest, which currently charges a $2.99 monthly fee for its mobile application, have indicated they think the market is moving toward ad-supported models.

Mobile directions and navigation are a core feature and extremely valuable for mobile users. So people may be willing to pay something for that functionality. But $10 per month is a fairly high price point. Yet the mobile market is relatively segmented and will potentially support multiple business models.

As a bottom line assessment, in my 48 hours of testing, I found Ask Mobile to be a useful application with a few blind or awkward spots. But I anticipate those areas will improve over time.

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