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Start-up tries to pocket wireless niche

PocketThis signs agreements with VoiceStream Wireless and France Telecom to begin distributing software that lets users of Web-enabled cell phones interact with each other.

Entrepreneur Nancy Gilby questions whether the makeup of the wireless Web is too constrained. She's searching her pocket for answers.

Her company, PocketThis, has signed agreements with VoiceStream Wireless and France Telecom to begin distributing PocketThis, a piece of software that lets users of Web-enabled cell phones interact with each other, regardless of which carrier they're using, and view the Internet content they want rather than the small collection of sites a provider chooses to strike deals with.

Makers of the software application, demonstrated Wednesday at a technology conference in Phoenix, say it blows open a hole in the "walled garden" of content that many of the wireless carriers offer their subscribers.

Wireless operators generally strike agreements with specific Web sites to provide prominent links to their content on cell phone Web browsers. Just as it was for a time in Europe, U.S. wireless subscribers can't send text-based short messages to anyone outside of their carriers' networks.

But PocketThis thinks it's found a way around that by letting consumers clip snippets of important e-mails or Web sites from their own PCs, which are then uploaded to the PocketThis system and delivered later to a cell phone.

Telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan had mixed feelings about PocketThis' offerings. The company offers the best available technology to break through the proprietary content of the wireless Web, yet it's still not the answer, he said.

"It's the best I've seen, but it's still first generation," Kagan said. "Don't expect the world."

PocketThis Chief Executive Gilby said one stumbling block is using the clunky, hard-to-use cell phone itself to replace the PC. Thus far, cell phones are not easy for Web surfers to use, she said.

As a result, most wireless subscribers aren't surfing the Web. About 6 percent of all Web-enabled cell phones are actually being used for more than just making calls, according to market researcher Dataquest.

The few wireless subscribers who do surf the Web, go through a cumbersome process of entering URLs on a tiny keypad that squeezes dozens of different letters and punctuation into 10 keys. Most consumers end up sticking with the list of URLs already bookmarked for them by their providers, analysts say.

Hold the phone
While companies are developing ways to make entering text on cell phones easier with software that expands the keypad, PocketThis is reaching out to the wired Web instead.

Consumers create virtual "pockets," or Web-based files of selected portions of Web sites, e-mails, or other text-based applications. It all sits on a PocketThis server.

Customers of Web-enabled phones can then access interactive information on their phones, pressing one button, for example, to call a restaurant or another button to get driving directions.

Even non-Web enabled phone users can create virtual pockets, but the information they get will be similar to a text message, which isn't interactive.

The company has put itself into a rather precarious position. PocketThis doesn't want to be known as a browser and enter into a war that in a sense has already been won by Openwave Systems. PocketThis also doesn't want to be known as a company that lets customers access the wireless Web without paying carriers, companies that PocketThis still hopes to work with.

"We want to be known as another metaphor for grabbing information," Gilby said.

But the company is tackling what it sees as a closed loop of content that many U.S. carriers are offering their customers.

For U.S. wireless subscribers to send text-based messages to anyone outside of their carriers' plans, the carriers have to agree not to prevent those consumers from interacting with someone using a different carrier's amenities, Gilby said.

Right now, the company is enjoying a modicum of success in Europe. It just closed its first round of funding, a $10.5 million basket of cash from telecommunications players like Innovam-France Telecom and Orange SA.

Investors in North America include SBVC, a $2.5 billion venture fund that has helped launch Interliant and Gilby expects the company to make additional announcements about deals through major carriers in the near future.