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Zoove improves on SMS short codes

Technology allows mobile phone users to dial a short code (preceded by **) and then receive information via SMS or e-mail.

Of the companies I saw yesterday at the Under the Radar: Mobility conference (more stories), the most audacious, and therefore my favorite, was Zoove. This company makes a service and a technology that allows mobile phone users to dial a short code (preceded by **) and then receive information via SMS or e-mail.

Sounds like SMS short codes, right? But there's a big difference: to get data from the Zoove service, you dial your phone. That is you press a code, like "**coke," then the Talk key. It's just like making a call. Except that instead of talking to a person, you get sent the information you're requesting.

Sending a short code is a lot more involved: you have to go to your messaging window, address the message (the short code), and then, most likely, enter a message keyword. Only then can you send off your message. Zoove "StarStar" codes take no training and are faster to use. They'll work better on billboards.

Zoove has data showing how much more likely users are to complete the task of sending a StartStar code than competing a short code SMS message, and how much more satisfying the experience is. It is, undoubtedly, a better way to request information by mobile phone. But the beauty of the business is Zoove's lock on the technology. Getting Zoove implemented requires making deals with carriers, and according to CEO Tim Jemison, implementation by a carrier is not trivial. This is a good thing, since it's a barrier to competitors. Also, for patent and for technological reasons having to do with the way big phone switches work, Jemison says that once Zoove is installed by a carrier, it is even more difficult for it to adopt a competing short-dial-code provider in parallel.

So the first audacious part of this business is that it only really works when all (or nearly all) of the carriers in a market support the technology. Zoove doesn't have that part of its message locked up just yet. Currently, Zoove is running on Sprint, and talks are underway with AT&T and Verizon Communications, Jemison said. Without these (and other) carriers, selling StarStar codes will be tough. And ultimately, that's the business.

The other big part of the Zoove vision is that Zoove controls the StarStar "namespace." If GM wants to license **Vette, for example, only Zoove can enable it. That puts a lot of power in Zoove's hands, and it takes guts to sell a product through carriers that represents a revenue stream that they don't necessarily benefit from and could turn off in a heartbeat, leaving Zoove with no air to breathe.

Zoove is a big vision, and that's why I like it. Delivering on the vision will be very difficult, though, and that just makes it more interesting.