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Tech turns phones into back-seat drivers

Service mixes local search with GPS to give driving directions to restaurants and other destinations over cell phones.

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.--For years, technology companies have been promising the killer app for the convergence of mobile phones and location-based services.

First, they said, people would be sent digital coupons for that Starbucks they were about to pass on the highway. Or maybe they'd be able to drive into a Burger King, punch a button on their phone indicating they want a Double Whopper with Cheese and have the system automatically debit their bank account.

But the years went by and the rhetoric about mobile location-based (LBS) services got louder and louder, and then it slowly became softer and softer, until people no longer believed the hype at all.

At the Demofall 2005 conference here on Wednesday, though, a demonstrator showed off what could finally be a useful mobile LBS technology.

Known as , the Scottsdale, Ariz., company gave a crowd of several hundred reporters and venture capitalists a presentation about its Destinator Anywhere Server.

Essentially, the technology is a mix of services like Yahoo Local (which provides comprehensive listings of local businesses and attractions) and mobile phones incorporating GPS. The idea is that the phone becomes a portable version of the little digital boxes so many car rental companies now offer that can direct drivers to their locations by spouting vocal commands on when to turn left, right or go straight for another quarter-mile.

When the Destinator service is instructed to look up, say, a sushi restaurant in some specific town, it interfaces with Yahoo Local and comes up with a list of choices. When the user selects a choice, the service creates a map and proceeds to direct the user to the sashimi, speaking out the directions as they drive.

In addition, the system allows people to invite others to join them by sending a message. Then, when the new user gets the message, the system offers them directions to the destination as well. Even better, if the inviter decides at the last minute to choose a new restaurant but doesn't tell the guest, the system recalculates the directions to the new place for the guest.

Local search is an increasing popular niche, with giants Yahoo, Google and America Online jostling with smaller providers to pull in customers. In August, Yahoo expanded its local lineup with the addition of user reviews and interactive maps. Google has introduced editorial reviews of local businesses and other features, and AOL plans to launch a local search service for cell phones later in the year.