Technology

Cell Phones Dominate at DEMO


Cool next-generation features for your phone range from video ringtones to musical voice mail to mass messaging and personalized Web browsing

After a decade or more of handling plain old phone calls and the occasional text message or video image, wireless phones are starting to become nearly as powerful as a desktop computer. Here at the DEMO conference in Palm Desert, Calif., that newfound power has companies exhibiting a new generation of applications to make cell phones do cool things.

For Jonathan Medved, the inspiration struck while he was on hold for an unusually long time with Hertz trying to rent a car. "I was looking at my phone and thought, 'Why is the screen dark?' I wondered why Hertz couldn't show me pictures of the cars I might rent from them," he says.

Video Calling Card

His company, Israel-based Vringo, goes at least part of the way toward providing an answer to that question. Vringo lets consumers create short video clips that act like the ringtones already popular on cell phones, or what the company calls "Vringos." Send one clip to a friend and every time you call him or her, they'll see that video clip play on their phone's display screen, and they can reply in kind.

Typically, wireless carriers are loath to let anything happen on the phone that might distract from a call. "There's a wall between the computer side of the phone and the phone side, and usually you're not allowed to break through that wall," says Vringo Vice-President Benjamin Levy. "We had to find a little crack in that wall and force it open." And that's Vringo's secret, which is central to some 21 patents on how the Vringo technology works. So far, it works on certain high-end phones running Symbian Series 60, the smart-phone operating system put out by Symbian, which is majority-owned by Nokia (NOK), and phones running Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile. The company is looking to do deals with wireless carriers and, down the road, with companies—like Hertz—that might like to deliver video content while putting its customers on hold.

Voice Mail With Soundtrack

A similar moment inspired Eric Sirkin, president of Palo Alto (Calif.)-based BUZZ Interactive. His teenage daughter was leaving musical voice mails for her friends by holding her cell phone up to a stereo speaker and then talking over the music. "Kids have been doing this for years, so I figured there should be a better way," he says.

The company's GetaBuz.com Web site lets consumers mix a short music clip and a voice message into a single message that can then be forwarded to a wireless phone. Want to wish your spouse a happy birthday? Combine music and a voice message—which can be recorded from either a computer microphone or a telephone—and mix them together. The service can also be used to create custom voice-mail greetings. So far the company works only with wireless carriers in the U.S. and doesn't allow consumers to add music from their own collection of MP3 music files. And as yet you can send only one message to one person at a time.

One Message, Many Recipients

But sending voice mail and text messages to many people at once is something that Jyngle, a wholly owned subsidiary of Milwaukee-based Brevient Technologies, can handle. While it's easy to send a voice-mail message to a group of people on your office voice-mail system, wireless carriers haven't made it easy for cell-phone customers. Brevient specializes in audio conferencing software. Jyngle, which is being offered for free to consumers at Jyngle.com, started out as a side project for staffers who played on sports teams and needed an easy way to send messages about last-minute changes for games and practice.

Create a group on Jyngle.com and one single voice mail or text message can be forwarded to everyone on that list automatically. The company's plan is to offer an enhanced version of the service for a fee to businesses, while leaving an ad-supported version free to consumers, says Matt Lautz, Jyngle's chief executive.

Local ads are what IQzone is all about. The company has built a service that lets anyone create a classified ad in seconds from a wireless phone using photos or videos. Its president, James Ferguson, says the company will initially target university students. "We'll hit the college campuses first because they have the need," he says. "When a semester is ending, and they have a few books or a hockey stick or some furniture they want to sell, they can list it quickly and find someone nearby who can stop by their dorm room, exchange some cash, and the deal is done." From there, the company hopes to do deals with other outfits that also offer classified ads, like Craigslist.org.

Personal Touch

Two companies at DEMO showed technology that helps individuals put their phones to use grabbing personal information. Cupertino (Calif.)-based Mobio Networks creates applications that combine data from existing applications online. For instance, one application could combine booking movie tickets and getting dinner reservations in the same neighborhood. So far, the company has 10 collections of applications, like one that lets users find places in a certain area to go out after midnight or places to take the kids. The company's GetMobio service is available for free download at getmobio.com. It works with several wireless phone models, including Motorola's (MOT) RAZR phone, but as yet it doesn't work with phones on Verizon Wireless' network.

While Mobio mashes different online applications into a cohesive whole, GoWare seeks to give consumers the kind of personalized Web portal on their phone that they're already accustomed to from companies like Yahoo! (YHOO) and Google (GOOG). Build your portal in an application that runs in Windows by picking RSS feeds from sites you want to read regularly, then GoWare prepares it for reading on your mobile browser.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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