Sprint to upgrade Microsoft mobile search services

The wireless carrier will offer a new Web and local business search application on its phones using a technology that pinpoints a caller's location.

U.S. wireless carrier Sprint Nextel said on Monday it would offer a new Microsoft Web and local business search application on its phones using a technology that pinpoints a caller's location.

Starting on Tuesday, the No. 3 U.S. wireless company will also offer customers a download of a new voice-recognition search product from Microsoft to allow users to find local businesses by simply speaking into a handset.

It is the first offering from a wireless carrier to use the speech technology and voice database Microsoft acquired when it bought Tellme Networks this year for about $800 million.

Sprint's upgraded offerings from Microsoft's Windows Live represent the next stage of their partnership to cash in on advertising from a budding mobile Internet search market.

The location-aware mobile search allows cell phone users to search for businesses close to their current location without typing in street addresses or ZIP codes.

"It's not single-handedly going to unlock the potential for local mobile search, but it's certainly a step in the right direction," said Greg Sterling, founding principal of research firm Sterling Market Intelligence.

Internet heavyweights Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are racing to strike alliances with handset makers and carriers all around the world to provide a host of ad-supported services, including search.

After seeing how lucrative Web search has become, Internet companies are targeting the mobile search market because of the number of handsets in the world and the "relevance"--crucial to how much advertisers will pay--of advertising delivered to a device found in almost everyone's pocket.

Sprint customers will find a new Windows Live search bar on Sprint's menu page when they access the Web. It will let users search the Internet, local businesses and Sprint's own network at once.

The location-aware search allows a user to type "coffee" to bring up a list of nearby coffee shops. Using voice search, a user can just say "coffee" and a list of results will appear.

Sprint finds the whereabouts of its customers using mobile phone towers to narrow down the user's location to within about 100 yards in densely populated areas. Sprint customers must first give permission before the feature is activated.

Sterling said the new search products from Sprint and Microsoft represent an accelerated improvement in terms of user experience, a key facet to building the necessary audience to drive advertisers to pay large sums for ads.

The new services will be available on most Sprint phones and at no additional cost to Sprint data subscribers.