RealTime IT News

The Mobile Web, ChaCha Style

ChaCha, the human-powered search engine, is now applying its "search+brainpower" motto to the cell phone.

Through its mobile answers service launched today, users can submit a question by texting 242242 ("ChaCha" spelled on a phone keypad), and a ChaCha guide will text back with an answer within minutes, accompanied by a URL to the site where the information came from, should the user want to explore further.

Users are encouraged to submit location-based questions ("I'm at the corner of Royal St. and Congress St. in New Orleans. Where's the nearest place to grab a Daiquiri?"), queries about sports scores or movie times, current events, trivia or anything else that can be expressed through SMS protocol.

Brad Bostic, ChaCha's president and co-founder, said that the core guides are trained to handle all manner of questions, and are experts in interpreting the shorthand vernacular of text messaging. If the guide cannot understand the query, he texts the user back with a request for more clarification.

The Text ChaCha service is currently available as a free trial, which Bostic said will likely last for two to three months, before the service migrates to a subscription model, probably costing $5 to $10 a month. ChaCha is also working with the major carriers to explore alternative pricing structures, such as an ad-based model or a per-query model, but all in due time.

"We're not in any rush to introduce a full fee-based model," Bostic told InternetNews.com. "Our primary focus out of the gate is to build the best service we can."

With just seven million unique visitors to its Website since September, ChaCha is not a part of the conversation about the leaders in Web search. It is a niche player, to be sure, but with today's launch it is repositioning itself in a sector that does not already dominated by the likes of Google. "It's clear that our plan is to be extremely focused on mobile," said Bostic.

Text ChaCha has the potential to deliver the Web to the great majority of mobile-phone customers who do not have a smartphone or a WAN-enabled phone, or those who do but don't subscribe to a data plan.

ChaCha is hoping that the simplicity of the service will give it an edge over the other mobile Web applications that have met with a lukewarm reception among U.S. customers.

Even search services geared specifically for mobile devices, like Yahoo's oneSearch, run into a translation problem when they try to scale the Web down to fit on a two-inch screen, Bostic said. In that light, ChaCha expects the service to hold virtually equal appeal for smartphone users as for people with basic SMS handsets.

"It kind of levels the playing field," he said. "You can almost think of it as having 30,000 of your smartest friends in your pocket."

ChaCha tested the service with a very quiet, limited beta launch in October in partnership with Cincinnati Bell. The service was launched in full today with partnerships with all major wireless carriers.

Bostic said that today's launch went off without a major hitch, save for a few jokers who tried to play stump-the-guide. In response a question asking who will win the Super Bowl, the guide wrote back, "The team that scores the most points will win the Super Bowl." And since every response comes with a URL to where the information was retrieved: www.nfl.com.