Picture This: Google Images on Sprint PCS

Wireless giant Sprint Wednesday said it has inked a deal that makes Google Images an included service on its PCS Vision phones.

Google’s text searching has been available on wireless phones and other mobile devices since April 2001 starting with a partnership with Vodafone , but Sprint says this marks the first U.S.-based wireless image search from the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine.

The goal, say company execs, is to let its PCS Vision subscribers get high-resolution color images and graphics as well as entice customers to purchase newer mobile phones with color screens.

“A good example is that my wife is in Omaha and she asked me about a video camera that she was looking at for the holidays,” said Google software engineer Matt Cutts. “I wasn’t near a computer, so I looked it up using Google Images on the PCS phone and now I know what camera she is talking about.”

The companies say Google Images for PCS is exactly the same as you would find on a PC, with nearly 400 million Web images available. Google says the mobile version also filters out duplicates, buttons, icons, and banner ads from the search results. The only difference is that instead of 20 search results on each page, the PCS version gives you three per screen. And because the search is a service, Google says it barely takes up CPU space on the handset. The service is located in the “Tools” folder and through the “Menu” soft key (search option).

“The ability to search for and view images clearly provides our customers another valuable reason to do more with their phones than simply make calls,” Sprint vice president Chip Novick said in a statement.

Image search is a major challenge for search engines, since they’re designed primarily to handle text. Most Web images don’t contain text, so the search engine is forced to rely on other clues to figure out what an image represents. The most basic clues are the filename and text surrounding the image on the page, which may — or may not — describe it. Beyond that, engines can read the contents of the image ALT tag, if a Webmaster has used it, which displays an alternate description of the image for browsers that can’t display images. Finally, links to pages with images often act like text captions, offering a summary of what the image is about.

But, while companies have tried to tweak their HTML tags to get high placement on Google’s search results, Cutts told internetnews.com that Google Images does not seem to garner the same attention, mostly because the company’s algorithms are good at filtering GIF and JPEG files.

Google said its partnership is not exclusive with Sprint and similar partnerships with Vodafone, Nextel and Cingular should be expected in the future.

According to ARS, Inc., a research company, Sprint leads the U.S. in 2.5G phone market share, with 27 percent. A report back in August showed Sprint had the best chance to market to the masses in the U.S., with an average 38 percent more coverage around the country than its competitors.

However, Sprint is hoping to bolster sales of its PCS Vision phones even though the wireless phone industry has had a tough time convincing customers to buy a 3G phone. The current handsets include optional services like Web browsing (Openwave mobile browser 6.1), e-mail, ring tones, games and screen savers; and the increasingly popular camera phones.

Currently, Sprint runs a wireless network using code division multiple access (CDMA) technology that serves about 14.6 million subscribers. The group provides wholesale service to independent regional affiliates such as AirGate PCS and Alamosa Holdings, adding 2 million customers to the group’s subscriber count.

The Sprint PCS Wireless Web service offers wireless Internet access and content through partners such as America Online and eBay .

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