Sprint Launches Mobile Search Relationship With Microsoft

According to the Wall Street Journal, Sprint has launched mobile (local) search has part of a broad new strategic relationship with Microsoft, "allowing its subscribers to use their phones to look up information on local businesses and events and find downloadable multimedia content such as ringtones, videos and games." (Here's the Microsoft release.)

According to the article, the new Microsoft-powered search will appear on the "home page of Sprint's browser." The local search component of the partnership will be monetized with advertising. But there's ambiguity in the way the WSJ describes the ad model and I haven't yet had a chance to discuss this with either party.

Here's how the WSJ describes the advertising aspect of the deal. "The local-search component offers a new revenue stream as well: Businesses can bid to be listed as sponsored links in the local-search directory and will pay a fee when consumers click those links to call them through the service."

So the clicks initiate phone calls to merchants. Whether these placements will be separately auctioned and billed as "calls" or as "clicks" is not clear. I'm assuming this is PPCall advertising and will be priced accordingly.

Microsoft is currently monetizing local search online at MSN search and Live Local through its relationship with SuperPages.com, which includes local PPC and PPCall advertisers. It separately has an exclusive relationship with Ingenio to provide PPCall advertisers for the mobile version of Live.com. Whether advertisers in the Sprint deal are being provided via either or both of those Microsoft relationships is not clear at this moment.

Regardless, the move will likely boost AdCenter's fortunes in the near-to-medium term, with Sprint as a mobile distribution partner. It also further solidifies PPCall as an ad vehicle well suited to mobile.

Sprint has an existing mobile local search relationship with InfoSpace, whose downloadable FindIt application works with Java-enabled Sprint GPS phones. Recently, Sprint also announced a deal with Google's new Java-based "GMail for mobile" initiative. But this is a broader and deeper involvement with Microsoft at the level of the carrier deck.

The WSJ article discusses some of the other partnerships between U.S. carriers and mobile search vendors, such as JumpTap and Medio Systems.

If one steps back, what may now be emerging is a kind of mobile search/feature war among the carriers that may trump their collective concern about being relegated to "dumb pipe" status. Sprint has apparently thrown that conventional wisdom to the wind in its most recent announcements with Google and now Microsoft. The emphasis seems, instead, to be on providing the best mobile search and user experience -- as it should be -- in their competition with other carriers for customer acquisition and loyalty.

There's something of an irony here in that on Windows Mobile smartphones (I have the Sprint PPC-6700) the mobile IE browser is the focus of the mobile Web-search experience. In that context, the mobile search experience is much more a duplication – albeit comparatively weak – of the online experience. What that means is the Window Mobile OS (on smartphones) is likely to merely replicate the market position of Google (or Yahoo) rather than boost Live.com or this new Microsoft-powered Sprint mobile search.