Start-up taps Microsoft's labs to boost mobile Net

ZenZui turns a cell phone screen into multiple tiles, hoping to solve usability issues and find revenue in the process.Photo: ZenZui's zoomable mobile interface
Written by Ina Fried, Contributor
A start-up called ZenZui is leaning on Microsoft's research labs to try to find a better way to view Web content on mobile devices.

Seattle-based ZenZui has licensed a "zoomable user interface" aimed at creating prime real estate on the phone that can help connect road warriors with the information they're seeking.

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In this approach, Web content is broken into tiles. At a distance, users just see the logos of the sites they are interested in. As they zoom in, they can get more detailed information, until finally they are viewing information from a single source. Because the phone already knows which tiles a user is interested in, the information can be downloaded and cached on the device, helping eliminate some of the latency associated with today's mobile Internet.

"If you try using the Web on a mobile phone, you would probably agree it's, at best, a painful experience," said ZenZui CEO Eric Hertz. Combine the slow data speeds with a tiny screen and the need to constantly scroll and it's a recipe for slow adoption, he said.

One of the biggest challenges for ZenZui will be to line up willing partners, particularly carriers that are used to controlling the real estate on their phones. ZenZui is launching an early trial of its service, but isn't identifying the carrier it is using.

Hertz said the company does have agreements with several companies to let them use their content in the trial, including Amazon.com, ABC News and Wired magazine. In a couple of other cases, such as Yahoo's Flickr, ZenZui is using publicly available feeds to create a custom tile.

This summer, ZenZui hopes to broaden its trial to thousands of invited users and expand beyond Windows Mobile phones to also those that support J2ME, the mobile version of Java. The company hopes to make money from the tile owners, as well as potentially through advertising.

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ZenZui has raised $12 million in Series A venture funding from Oak Investment Partners and Hunt Ventures.

Microsoft said it will get an equity stake in ZenZui, but did not disclose any other financial terms of the deal. It will also get an observer seat on the company's board.

The Microsoft technology that ZenZui is using--originally called LaunchTile--is among those Microsoft said back in 2005 that it hoped to license to start-ups. A start-up based on another of those technologies, a social-networking approach called Wallop, was established last year.

Meanwhile, another start-up that has licensed technology from Microsoft, Inrix, is set to announce a mobile version of its real-time traffic information service. The mobile service will initially be available in about 60 areas in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. Inrix was the first start-up to benefit from a push inside Microsoft to license technology to start-ups.

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