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Canpages CEO Olivier Vincent outside his Burnaby office. (Laura Leyshon/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and Mail)
Canpages CEO Olivier Vincent outside his Burnaby office. (Laura Leyshon/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and Mail)

Rewriting the future of the phone book Add to ...

If phone books are a dying industry - as Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates once declared - someone forgot to tell Olivier Vincent.

As early as today, Mr. Vincent, the chief executive officer of Vancouver-based phone listing upstart Canpages Inc., will announce his latest in a string of rapid-fire acquisitions designed to build the phone book company of the future.

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The deal, for an undisclosed sum, will see Canpages acquire GigPark, a Toronto-based social media site that helps communities of friends recommend businesses to each other rather than rely on the plethora of anonymous reviews populating the Internet.

It is the fourth acquisition this year for Canpages, and will enable the company to integrate social media platforms similar to Facebook into online searches for local businesses and phone numbers.

Though small, GigPark has amassed a significant audience since launching two years ago. The site was created by tech entrepreneurs Pema Hegan and Noah Godfrey, the son of former Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey, now CEO of the National Post newspaper.

The addition of GigPark is part of a broader strategy Mr. Olivier has embarked on with U.S. private equity firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst to take market share away from industry giant Yellow Pages.

The goal is to become a key mobile and online search tool for Canadians, though the company has a long way to go to usurp such well-known brands as Yellow Pages and Google. But in March, Canpages served notice it could fight the big players when it beat Google Inc. into the Canadian market with Street Scene. The visual search tool gives online users a 360-degree photographic view of streets.

It is a direct competitor to Google's Street View, which operates in 12 countries and is expected to launch in Canada later this year.

"We beat Google to the punch," Mr. Vincent said of the Street Scene initiative, which launched in Vancouver and Whistler ahead of the ing 2010 Winter Olympics. "We've been putting a lot of effort into the digital online world."

He's now racing Google to add more cities, including Toronto, where both Google and Canpages are driving around the city with car-mounted cameras to photograph streets for the application. Under privacy rules, faces and licence plates are blurred in the photos.

But the application of GigPark brings a different element, mixing friend networks with phone listings. Mr. Godfrey said the site brings "word of mouth" recommendations to the phone listing world, rather than have users rely on anonymous posters that may influenced by advertising.

If someone needs a restaurant, for example, why not tap into a network of social recommendations. And if your network of friends can't suggest a good place to eat, the site will serve up suggestions from other communities.

Mr. Vincent's idea of the phone book of the future also includes maps, menus and videos that are accessible online or on mobile devices.

Canpages has bought several small players, including such online listing companies as Ziplocal.ca and PhoneGuide in recent months. Mr. Godfrey called the buyout of his company "a good opportunity to get on a train that's moving very quickly."

Mr. Vincent sees an opportunity to claim a slice of future online revenue, since industry giant Yellow Pages Income Fund gets 90 per cent of its income from print books. It won't be easy, though - Yellow Pages has been expanding digitally as well, and its iPhone and Blackberry applications are among the most popular on those platforms.

Though Mr. Gates declared print phone books would be dead in the next five years, Mr. Vincent thinks they'll be around longer - but the future is definitely online. Amid its buying spree, privately held Canpages has quadrupled revenues to more than $100-million in the past three years. Though it doesn't report its financials publicly, the company is profitable, Mr. Olivier said.

"We have been busy."

In a previous version of this story, it incorrectly stated that Google's Street View operates in nine countries and is expected to launch in Canada later this year. It operates in 12 countries. This version has been corrected.

 

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