A new startup called ZenZui is licensing user-interface technology from Microsoft Research (MSFT) to create a new way to navigate data, images, and other Web-based information on mobile phones. Like the approach that Apple is taking with it's yet-to-launch iPhone, ZenZui's answer is to push the data to the phone in the form of little widgets, or "tiles," that people can subscribe to. Unlike Apple, though, ZenZui is not actually making it' s own phone and actually will have fewer restrictions than Apple on who can create the widgets.
There will also be fewer restrictions on where the widgets can be seen. At first, they will work only on Windows Mobile phones. but by the end of the year ZenZui's service will be available on any Java or Brew phone. Subscribing to widgets should be a fairly easy way to personalize your mobile phone, and in effect create your own mobile portal. Anything with an RSS feed can become a widget—from blog and news feeds to Epicurious recipes to Flickr photos. Shariff Mansour, senior manager at Microsoft's IP Ventures, explains what ZenZui hopes to accomplish:
Imagine being able to carry around your Internet on your mobile device, having access to all the content important to you at any time.
Well, that's always been the dream of the mobile Web. But mobile widgets could be a step in the right direction. With ZenZui's "zooming interface" you are two clicks from tile to data, and since you pre-program the widgets you want on your phone, it should be all relevant. Says CEO Eric Hertz:
The key is to take away the painful experience of getting content today, and make it two clicks to get fresh data.
ZenZui will make this service free (not any time soon, though—an invite-only beta doesn't start until the summer). And Hertz expects to make money from advertising—either sponsored widgets or little ads at the bottom of each tile. (Can you say mobile clutter?).
The startup raise $12 million in a round led by Oak Investment Partners. Microsoft owns a minority stake. Something tells me this is not the last widget phone we will be hearing from this year.