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AOL launches UK mobile web portal

New effort to challenge Google & Yahoo

AOL has launched a new mobile web portal for the UK in a bid to persuade the 6.7 million people who visit its UK portal from a PC each month to also view it on their mobile phone.

The portal, at http://wap.aol.com/uk, offers the same content as AOL's main website, including sports, weather and email, but optimised for the smaller screen on mobile devices. The new mobile site is another step in the company's effort to to reinvent itself from an ISP into an advertising and content company. As part of the plan, AOL will serve mobile visitors to the site with "unobtrusive" advertisements, said Ariel Eckstein, an AOL vice president, during a launch event in London.

AOL tried to make the portal uncluttered to make it attractive to visitors, said Tim Hussain, head of mobile for AOL UK. It features lots of white space and a three-tab navigation bar. Web pages returned from a search are transcoded using AOL technology to fit into a mobile browser.

But AOL officials acknowledged that the mobile web faces big barriers. So far, not many people use their phones to access the internet regularly, and browsing capabilities vary greatly from device to device. AOL's new UK portal can be viewed on phones with the most basic browsing capabilities, according to Hussain, including even version 1.0 of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).

The company is competing against Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to stake out a piece of the mobile advertising business, where revenue from the UK alone is expected to increase from around £64m this year to £100m next year, according to Eckstein.

Online advertising has become key to AOL's growth since it sold off its ISP businesses in Europe, although it still depends on selling internet access for some of its revenue in the US. AOL calls its ad sales division 'Platform A'.

The company is trying to be careful about how it displays ads. For example, it found that it's better to put banner ads at the end of a news story rather than at the beginning, since users immediately scroll down past them, Hussain said.

The company will introduce other features to the mobile portal over the next year, such as video and premium content. People in the UK can't yet use MyAOL, which is currently available in the US and allows people to customise their portal, but it will come to the UK eventually.

To coordinate its mobile advertising, AOL is starting with technology from Adtech, a German company it bought in May. It plans to integrate technology from another company it acquired, Third Screen Media, into its platform by early next year,

AOL is using Google's search engine. It isn't displaying sponsored links yet, although that will likely change next year, said Chris Locke, head of mobile for AOL Europe.

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