Microsoft Buys MotionBridge

Microsoft wants to build a bridge between people on the move and information residing anywhere. To help, it’s bought MotionBridge.

The acquisition of the Paris-based provider of search technology for mobile network operators and the mobile Internet, announced on Monday, is intended to help MSN unify the Windows Live experience across the desktop and mobile devices, according to Brooke Richardson, an MSN group product manager.

“One of our goals is to unify the online experience for people so that, instead of living in all these little silos, it brings together all their experiences in a seamless manner, for communication and information in particular,” Richardson said. “If you want to unify that experience and give people great access, ‘any time/anywhere’ becomes critical. So, mobile becomes really important to us.”

Windows Live is Microsoft’s initiative to provide Web-based consumer services, including e-mail, messaging, local search, mapping and classifieds.

MSN hasn’t delivered a mobile search product, but it is beta testing mobile search in a few countries, Richardson said. Rivals Google and Yahoo both offer Web search via mobile devices.

MSN wants to make sure people can search and have the same view of their contacts whether they’re on the PC or a non-Windows device. For example, when someone saves a phone number into a cell phone’s memory, that number should then show up in the person’s PC address book, as well.

The MotionBridge technology lets users search for content from multiple providers. Device filtering optimizes the display and delivery of search results for various types of devices. MotionBridge could help Microsoft deepen its relationships with carriers.

While users must now employ a mobile browser to access MSN’s mobile search, Richardson explained, MotionBridge’s search is integrated on the mobile network operators’ home decks. For example, a mobile network operator might have a wealth of content such as ringtones and games that it wanted subscribers to find easily. MotionBridge offers on-network search as well as off-network search so that subscribers can also look for things on the mobile Internet.

Vikrant Gandhi, an analyst with telecom research firm Frost & Sullivan, said the acquisition could help drive traffic to Windows Live by making it easier for people using normal, mass-market mobile phones to have a good user experience.

Microsoft has its own smart phone [platform],” Gandhi said. “But to drive maximum traffic to Live, either online or via the mobile Internet, [they need users of lower-end phones], and that’s what MotionBridge actually does.”

There’s another potential benefit, Gandhi said. MotionBridge will continue to support its operator partners, including Orange, Sprint and O2 Ltd., as part of the acquisition. “If somehow Microsoft could work with MotionBridge to allow some of those subscribers to use Live, that should be a big boost,” he said.

Yankee Group analyst Linda Barrabee said that, while carriers have been resistant to opening up their walled gardens, the rising prominence of brands on the mobile Internet is making them reconsider. “You don’t want to necessarily tie consumers to what’s available on the home page,” she said. “You want to give consumers the option to buy stuff or find stuff outside the walled garden.”

According to Barrabee’s research, the total market for mobile content in 2005 was $27.3 billion; she expects it to reach $58.2 billion in 2009.

Richardson said MotionBridge’s carrier customers were definitely a factor in the acquisition. “They have great relationships, and we have a ton we can learn,” she said. For example, MotionBridge can help Microsoft understand mobile operators’ requirements and the behavior of their subscribers, so that MSN can better tailor its offerings.

This work won’t pay off any time soon, said Jupiter Research analyst Julie Ask. (Jupiter Research and are owned by the same corporation.) “There are all these companies doing search on cell phones,” she said. “The technology is probably phenomenal, but users don’t use it because of the inherent difficulty — and also because people typically don’t use their cell phones to search for anything.”

Ask covers the U.S. market, where mobile content consumption is lower than in the rest of the world. “Still,” she said, “everybody has to be doing it so, eventually, when the network is faster and the phones are better and more people are using the mobile Internet, it will be ready to go.”

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