It's time to think about putting those digital cameras in cell phones to work. Improvements in image resolution and the emergence of broadband wireless networks are inspiring entrepreneurs to experiment with mobile classified advertising and product information searches. Over the next year, the camera phone you use to snap personal photos on the run could become another way to broadcast promotional information, post ads or let customers gather more information about your products.
This month, for example, WineCommune will add support for photographic searches to its WineZap pricing information service, says Michael Stajer, co-founder and CEO of the 8-year-old Oakland, California, company, which generates $17 million in sales annually. "The technology has come a [long] way in the past year," says Stajer, who started WineCommune with Shaun Bishop, 35. "Now it's just a matter of having the images to compare to."
Here's how it works: A prospective buyer takes a photograph of the label on a wine bottle and sends it to WineCommune electronically. After comparing the image to those contained in its database, the service returns information about where the wine can be bought locally, along with phone numbers and price information.
WineCommune doesn't charge consumers for these searches. Instead, it collects a 3 percent to 5 percent transaction fee for all sales that occur on the site, as well as a fee from retailers or vineyards that want priority ranking. "We only make money if we're making the merchant money," says Stajer, 33.
About 100 to 200 people per day already use WineZap with their mobile phones, he says. The service covers 800 retailers and includes almost 1 million prices, which are updated two to three times per week. WineCommune, which counts on its own retail sales for the bulk of its revenue, uses trend information from the searches to help with its own inventory planning, Stajer says.
The big challenge for WineCommune is that there isn't much standardization when it comes to wine labels, he says. For example, most fine-wine labels don't have any sort of UPC code. At least initially, the WineZap search service will only cover approximately 4,000 top labels. "I believe these services will become more prevalent as a way of doing more things with your cell phone," he says.
Ontela, a Seattle company started by ex-employees of Expedia, Microsoft and RealNetworks, is developing similar applications using its PicDeck technology through a partnership with ActiveSymbols, a technology development company in nearby Bellevue, Washington. An example of what the two companies are working on includes applications that let consumers take a photograph of a product's barcode to get more information about it.
The camera phone is also at the heart of a free service from IQzone Inc., a startup in Scottsdale, Arizona. With their cell phone cameras, users can take pictures or short videos of products they want to sell and write brief descriptions of the items. Once the information is sent to IQzone, the company disseminates the information to sites all over the internet, including Google and Yahoo!.
IQzone co-founder and CEO Michael Bates, 44, says the service has built an early following among college students who are selling everything from dorm fittings to video game consoles. IQzone stays out of the transaction; rather, it is supported by sponsors who want to be associated with the content being created on its site.
"The more items you sell or buy with us, the more we know about you," Bates says. "We can send you information that is unique to you."
—By Heather Clancy
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