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Cell phone concierge, now at your service

Forget the hotel front desk; AskMeNow strives to answer questions on just about anything--the zanier the better.

For anyone who has been without Internet access and needed to know movie times, the weather or whether fingernails or toenails grow faster, a new service is eager to help find the answer.

AskMeNow employs a legion of researchers to answer a wide range of questions for cell phone users who haven't upgraded to Web-enabled mobile devices. Since launching Nov. 1, the company has responded to questions about which year bubble gum was invented (1928), and which model has appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine the most (Cindy Crawford, 17 times), among other inquiries.

One caller learned that fingernails grow four times faster than toenails.

For mundane questions regarding subjects such as movie times, driving directions, sports scores or stock quotes, users can call in their questions. Within seconds, the company's automated service will send an answer via text message to the caller's phone, free of charge.

"They call wanting to know which airports have the cleanest bathrooms. The questions we get are off the charts."
--Darryl Cohen, CEO, AskMeNow

For more obscure information, callers can use the company's AskMeAnything service. Researchers will field a question and respond with a text message usually within four or five minutes, AskMeNow's CEO Darryl Cohen told CNET News.com in an interview.

The Irvine, Calif.-based company, which charges 49 cents for each question to the AskMeAnything service, uses a proprietary research software to help unearth answers quickly.

At a time when a slew of companies are trying to develop applications, features and tools that appeal to the growing number of mobile device users, AskMeNow hopes to fill the gap between newspapers and the Internet. The daily newspaper, Cohen said, is typically not a viable source of historical information. "You can't settle a bar bet with a newspaper," Cohen said.

As for the Web, it has often disappointed handheld-device users because online searches are cumbersome for small screens. "Using the Internet on a phone is a joke. Everybody knows it's not a great user experience," Cohen said. "With a Web search, you have to scroll through all those links and it will always be difficult on a small screen."

To access the AskMeNow services, a user must first visit the Web site to provide information such as mobile-phone number and the phone's make and carrier. The user then either calls the company's 800-number to ask a question or sends an e-mail.

Besides charging for its premium service, AskMeNow said it plans to generate revenue by selling advertisements. The text-message responses that callers have received from the company have also included a short ad at the bottom, Cohen said.

Be warned, Cohen said, that there are limits to the questions the company will answer. First, it will not provide information that can be used to harm someone. "We won't help someone make a bomb," Cohen said.

Neither will the company give medical or legal advice. Researchers may also refuse to answer questions that they find "disgusting" or of a sexually graphic nature because there's no way for the company to determine whether they are dealing with a minor.

And, unlike the Google Answers Web-based service, AskMeNow rejects complex questions that demand extensive research. The 175-employee company, which has a data facility in the Philippines, will answer questions that its researchers and software can answer within three minutes, Cohen said.

Since launching the service, Cohen said he has gained a better understanding of what really occupies people's minds--and it's not weather, sports scores or stock quotes.

"They call wanting to know which airports have the cleanest bathrooms," Cohen chuckled. "The questions we get are off the charts. They want to know where the cool people hang out in San Francisco, or where in Los Angeles are the best places to see celebrities. If I told you how many times we've been asked why the sky is blue it would blow you away."

The exact answer to that question, however, was a mystery, even to the chief executive of AskMeNow.