Mobile operators are battling with Google over the provision of search on their mobile networks, according to a panel of Asian and European operators said at the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment tradeshow in San Francisco.
"Search is the key battleground," said Graeme Ferguson, director of global content development at Vodafone.
Matt Dacey, head of content for O2, told vnunet.com that wireless customers mainly visit pages inside the operators' networks. "As consumers become more educated and stop taking the path of least resistance, they will use search more often to get to content," he said.
Mobile search engines do not typically use advertising, but will include sponsored listings in the results presented to users.
Persuading users to visit the operators' search engine not only gives them the sponsor revenue, but allows the phone companies to lead them to their own premium services that can generate additional revenue, such as sales of ring-tones.
"Carriers hate accurate search," said J H Kah, global vice president at South Korea Telecom. "Then you just end up at the content."
There are several mobile search firms that license their technology to operators. O2, for instance, uses technology provided by French company MotionBridge.
The doom scenario for mobile operators is illustrated by the failure of internet providers in competing with search portals. Provider portals have become worthless now that customers are using independent search engines such as Google and Yahoo.
They have been reduced to a provider of network connections. "We are keen to avoid being reduced to a dump pipe," explained Dacey.
He pointed out that in Germany and Austria T-Mobile has already given up the battle against Google, where the search firm has become the default provider on T-Mobile's network.
Google's mobile search technology works by users sending a text message to the search engine with a query, or by visiting a specially formatted version of the engine on the Google website.
But Ferguson argued that Google Mobile is mainly a marketing offensive for now. "Google is very aggressive, but it doesn't have a product," he said.