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U.S. wireless Web to have images soon?

InfoSpace and ActiveSky team up to create a way for North American carriers to offer pictures, graphics and other nontext items to wireless users.

In Europe, cell phone users have made viewing pornographic images a huge moneymaking proposition. In Japan, NTT DoCoMo makes millions of Yen because cell phone users play a game that involves catching fish.

But in the United States, those brave enough to wander the wireless Web stumble through a desert of text, text and more text. A deal this week, however, may bring North America the image and animation capabilities that have helped push wireless usage to new levels in other regions of the world.

InfoSpace, which helps provide the software infrastructure for nine of the 11 major U.S. carriers, has partnered with San Mateo, Calif.-based ActiveSky, a company that says it has developed a way for graphics and pictures to be beamed onto even the least sophisticated handhelds on the market.

The idea for the partnership, both sides say, is to create a way for North American carriers to offer pictures, graphics and other nontext items to wireless users, whether they are businesspeople watching a video e-mail or 12-year-olds playing an interactive game on their cell phone.

Both companies are now developing the technology and testing it on the various networks in North America. When they plan to roll it out is still in flux, according to the companies. They say expect some significant announcements with carriers in the next few weeks.

"Our plan is to add rich media assets to services we are already providing, so carriers can determine if they want to add them," said Tom Camp, senior vice president of business development for InfoSpace.

InfoSpace may be having troubles on the stock market, where its shares hover under $4 after soaring during the dot-com boom. But it isn't for lack of customers.

In fact, the Bellevue, Wash.-based company has relationships with more than 20 telephone service providers, bringing wireless Web services to 1.5 million customers. It expects to quadruple that figure next year.

While there are other companies in the market that could bring these capabilities to the states, most are geared toward alternative computing devices that would require additional, and expensive, modems and some kind of wireless service to pull it off.

Companies like San Diego, Calif.-based PacketVideo stream video to handhelds. The company also recently won a patent for some of its technology, which is starting to win over the analysts who say PacketVideo is too far ahead of the market. New York-based SolidStreaming is another company working on streaming video to handheld devices.

Analysts think carriers will likely be at least a little receptive to the idea of offering up a wireless Web with the pictures and graphics it is currently missing. Since last year, carriers have been stockpiling games to offer their users.

Analysts are warning that investors should do their research before putting down cash on this type of content. "Myself and fellow analysts are pretty cautious about this market," said Sean Wargo, a senior analyst at PC Data.

Wargo questioned, for instance, who would want to play a low-tech game of "Hangman" on a cell phone, when Gameboy Advanced or most other PDAs (personal digital assistants) can offer better resolution and color graphics.

Cell phone makers are also creating next-generation phones that are smaller, and the already postage stamp-size screen will shrink as well, Wargo said.

If there is a niche for this type of content, it's probably as small as the window screen on a Nokia cell phone, he said.

"For the carrier, the market is a pretty competitive one," Wargo said. "At this point, even if it's by offering cheesy little games, it might get them an extra segment. You'd hope they did the market research before they spent a lot of money adding these games."