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Small firms are cropping up to help customers with mobile Internet services

PARIS: At a time when many households have one, two or even more mobile phone subscriptions, it is frustrating that only 18 percent of college students in a recent survey deemed mobile Internet services satisfactory.

At the same time, the granddaddy of the mobile Internet, i-mode from NTT DoCoMo, the simplest and most painless way to get to Internet services from a cellphone, is finding such a lack of interest in Europe that it is being phased out in some markets.

Hello, telecommunications folks? As a tech-savvy colleague of mine complained this week, while trying (still! after weeks of tinkering!) to get his new Treo configured for e-mail, "If everybody had as much trouble getting online by phone as I have, I'm surprised there even is a mobile Internet."

And that's before seeing his first monthly bill for those data services, an invoice that may scare him straight back to voice calls. (Here is where I get to interject that even I cannot access my work e-mail from my "smart" phone without radical surgery.)

Leave it to small companies to step into the breach that big telecom businesses have left in their speed to drive unprepared users toward cellular data services.

InfoGin, an Israeli company that after seven years in business might no longer pass as a start-up, disclosed in its survey of British universities early this year that two out of three students found surfing the Internet on their cellphones such a poor experience that they gave up.

These are college kids, mind you, people who practically grew up with cellphones and are culturally defined by the shape and sophistication of their handsets.

InfoGin, which makes software that enables smoother surfing, also found that 71 percent of the students in its trial said they would pay for a service that improved the mobile Internet experience.

Using InfoGin's system, content from a traditional Web page that was built for a big screen can be presented according to its importance, with a "smart" navigation system that enables users to reach their content with a minimum number of clicks.

In a private demonstration, InfoGin's system seemed persuasive. But the business opportunities for helping people simplify their mobile phone use don't stop there. In fact, it may know no bounds.

Schering Health Care, for instance, is running a marketing trial in London for its emergency contraceptive pill, Levonelle. When a user sends a text message from the privacy of his or her phone, a message will come back to the phone with the addresses of the three closest pharmacies.

Meanwhile, ZYB, a Copenhagen start-up, offers a service to store, manage, share and access mobile data on the Internet via a personal computer. More than eight million contacts have already been backed up through ZYB, whose basic services are free.

Still, judging by the frustration of many "normal" subscribers - those of you without technical experience or special access - you would think that the "mobile Internet" had just arrived, when in fact it became technically available almost a decade ago.

On the positive side, Analysys, a consulting firm in Cambridge, England, says "the outlook is far from gloomy if mobile operators learn from the most successful services in the world." And so the company has compiled a list of the top 10 nonvoice services.

Three of them, unsurprisingly, are Asian: Cyworld Mobile's online community in South Korea, KDDI's EZ Chaku-uta Full music downloading in Japan, and DCMX mobile payments from DoCoMo.

Three others are message-related: O2's SMS in Britain, BlackBerry e-mail and instant messaging from T-Mobile USA, and Vodafone Egypt's MiniCall "Voice SMS."

Only two are truly advanced services involving video - 3 UK's mobile TV and video streaming, and 3 Italy's mobile TV - showing that data access need not be complicated to be successful.

A vast majority (83 percent) of the respondents to InfoGin's survey said that it was becoming more important for them to access the Web while on the move.

Rather than leave the "keep it simple, stupid" market to start-ups and entrepreneurs, I think it falls to the big telecom companies to work harder for their end users.

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