Google, Yahoo and 4Info have quietly rolled out cell-phone messaging services in recent months that let you use the stubby digits to summon the location of the nearest Starbucks, find a phone number or forecast the weather.
You can use the services to bypass the telephone company's 411 service - and save money.
How does it work? The services use text messaging, a popular feature on newer cell phones that lets people communicate with brief messages. Instead of entering an e-mail address, users put in a five-digit code. For Google, it's 46645; Yahoo, 92466 and 4Info, 44636. In the body of the message, they enter a search request.
How about an example? Here's how it works with Google. First access the messaging function on your phone and enter the five-digit code (46645) in the "To" field. To find a pizza joint near downtown Raleigh, enter "pizza 27601" (the ZIP code) in the body of the message. Within a minute, Google will fire back a response.
In a test, the pizza query sent back three options in two text messages.
What else can I do? The services have different features. You can get directions and movie show times on Google. Yahoo will tell you the weather and the location of Wi-Fi hot spots. With 4Info you can get drink recipes, pickup lines and fantasy sports statistics.
Why would I do this? For convenience and to save money.
A call to 411 typically runs $1.50 on cell-phone networks. And you can't get as much data as with text-messaging searches. Mobile-phone Internet services give access to more, but they typically run about $5 a month. By comparison, text messages range from 2 cents to 10 cents each.
Sounds good. What's the catch? Well first, you have to enter information using a phone keypad. That can be a pain.
When the search services reply with the information you're seeking, they sometimes do so in multiple text messages. That causes charges to add up, unless you have unlimited messaging.
What's more, results are limited by the information the services have. You're not going to get every dining option in an area, for instance. Complicated searches can be a little off target.
How popular are these services? "It's very, very new and what we're seeing now is very low numbers," said Seamus Mc-Ateer, an analyst with M:Metrics, a Seattle market research firm.
In September, 1.3 million people did a text messaging search.