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Turning cheap cell phones into smarter phones

A company called iSkoot says it can turn an inexpensive feature-phone into a Web-enabled device for checking Facebook updates and Twittering friends.

iSkoot is trying to make cheap cell phones smarter.

The company, which provides mobile Web services, announced Wednesday that it is offering a software development kit to mobile handset manufacturers so that they can turn their inexpensive feature-phones into Web-enabled devices that can access and get live updates for popular Web services like Facebook, IM, e-mail, Twitter and other social media sites.

The iSkoot KalaidaLive SDK will be available to any handset maker, such as LG, Samsung, Motorola or any other device maker. The purpose is to provide more Web services for these inexpensive devices at a low cost. The manufacturers won't have to invest in new operating system platforms nor will they have to do any deep technology integration. They also won't have to upgrade chipsets or any other hardware to offer this new functionality. Instead, all they will need is to integrate the iSkoot Web services software into their new devices.

"Smartphones are great for accessing the Internet," said Mark Jacobstein, CEO of iSkoot. "But most people don't own a smartphone. And the Internet is virtually unusable on basic feature-phones. So we are trying to bring Internet services to the other 85 percent of the market."

The way it works is that iSkoot has developed a Web-based solution that maintains constant or persistent connection to social networking, news, e-mail, and instant messaging services. This means that the device itself is not pinging services or requesting updates. The iSkoot servers do this in the "cloud" of the Internet. And then they push updates to the KalaidaLive-enabled devices via the open connection.

The company has been offering a similar service to AT&T, which has enabled 20, and soon to be 30, of its handsets with iSkoot Web services. With this announcement, the company is opening the iSkoot software and service to any handset maker. The iSkoot technology has also been used to deliver mobile Skype services.

iSkoot is addressing an interesting market. The popularity of Apple's iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry devices has proven that mobile users will use the Internet on their phones. Apple's App Store has been a tremendous success with thousands of applications being downloaded each day. As a result, smartphones are the fastest growing segment of the cell phone market. And according to several market research firms, smartphones accounted for more than 20 percent of all cell phone sales in the U.S. in 2008.

But not every consumer is willing to pay $200 for a smartphone. And in these tough economic times, not every consumer is able to pay $30 a month extra for data service.

The iSkoot solution offers these consumers a smartphone-lite experience. While users have been able to access the mobile Web via WAP browsers, Jacobstein, says the experience has been unimpressive. And as a result, consumers quickly ditch their data service plans. He believes the KalaidaLive offering provides a better mobile Web experience, and will help mobile operators sign up and retain more data customers.

But because most of the Internet heavy-lifting is done in the Internet and not on the device itself, Jacobstein said that users won't need an expensive all-you-can-eat data plan. AT&T currently offers its iSkoot-enabled phones with a $15 a month data plan, he said. This is in addition to a regular voice plan.

A company called INQ is taking a similar approach to building new phones. INQ actually used iSkoot's technology in a phone it developed specifically for the Skype Internet calling service. And the two companies continue to work closely together. While INQ is building a completely new handset from scratch to address the need for low-cost Internet enabled phones, Jacobstein said that iSkoot's technology will allow every device maker to create a smartphone-lite device.

"INQ is building a hero device that offers deeper integration," Jacobstein said. "We are taking a more broad approach so that Samsung or LG can enable Web services across all their devices."