Get Ready for Mobile Social Networks

Mobile social networking is a small part of the way people use their cell phones, but industry officials expect that use will grow, and not just for teenagers who want to text their friends or send short video clips.

Workers will also adopt mobile social networking, analysts and network providers say, following the way social network sites, such as Facebook, have begun to grow within work groups that rely on desktop computers. These experts also expect affinity groups, such as doctors, engineers, lawyers or even baseball fans, who are linked with wireless devices.

Mobile social networking makes sense because mobile devices are personal and they are taken everywhere, offering the potential for transmission of quick ideas or images. Mobile social networks will (and some already do) put video, GPS, text, voice and collaboration into the palm of a user's hand.

For example, a business traveler at a conference in an unfamiliar city could be walking past an appealing restaurant. Using mapping and location technologies, the traveler could almost instantly send a quick note to 10 friends in her work group to "meet here in 15 minutes for a meal." Or the hungry traveler could record video of herself standing in front of the restaurant and send the video clip along with the message so the work group friends would know what kind of restaurant to expect.

The future of mobile social networks became a major topic of discussion in seminars and forums at the CTIA trade show this week. Device manufacturers, network operators and social network providers debated how the services will be paid for and by whom, and what steps must be taken to protect user privacy and safety.

Mobile social networks have not been widely adopted in the U.S., where between 5% and 10% of mobile users are participating, said Karsten Weide , an IDC analyst who spoke on a panel about the trend. But Weide said the number of users could easily double in a year, given the amount of interest in the concept by so many industry players. Adding to the reason for optimism, prominent vendors, including Verizon Wireless and Nokia Corp., announced a variety of tools at CTIA to help users aggregate social networks into a single interface.

Still, there are limitations, Weide said, including the difficulty of using a cell phone or smartphone interface to find friends in a social network, to attach information and to send messages. "Even the iPhone interface, as good as it is, isn't ideal for so much navigating," Weide said in an interview.

Perhaps the biggest concern is how social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, will raise revenue by making their applications work on all kinds of cell phones across a variety of networks.

Weide said he had talked to executives at two major social networking companies, which he would not identify, who expressed concerns over how they would raise revenue and how much revenue wireless carriers would want to share. In addition to sharing revenues, social network providers have to figure out how much of a customer's personal information to share with carriers, and vice versa.

Another panel discussion included five industry officials who cast doubt on whether mobile social networks can successfully be supported with revenues from advertising seen by end users. If advertising doesn't support the concept, then carriers and social network providers will probably have to rely on subscription fees, the panel members said. Questions still remain over how much a user would be willing to pay for a subscription, since that fee might be on top of the cost of a user's unlimited monthly data plan.

Hitting the Right Note with Consumers

"Advertising is challenged" as a way to support mobile social networking, said Paul Rehrig, vice president of business development for Warner Music Group. However, he said that many companies, including those selling music, are likely to have more success selling certain content to mobile device users than has been sold to desktop computer users.

With music, there is great potential for sharing tunes and reviews through mobile social networks, said Mari Joller, director of new services for Virgin Mobile. She said there is great potential for mobile social networking, given the way young wireless users are already flocking to text messaging and relying on social networks from their desktops.

For that group, "we've found that people are terrified of being out of touch," which means a mobile social connection will be ideal, Joller said.

Still, Joller and others said carriers and social networking sites will have to be vigilant to protect privacy and safety, especially of minors who could be the subject of stalkers or who don't want to communicate their location to a former friend. Controls can be built in and should be, she said.

"We have to have controls that say 'Are you sure you want to share your location,' " Joller said. "We have real life examples of somebody stalking" through social networks. "It's going to take education with growth in the market ... With the youth demographic, there could be some scary situations on our hands."

Weide said mobile social networks "will be a non-starter" if all the parties don't put in plenty of privacy and security controls upfront, especially for young users.

Mobile social networking could lead to many uses that are only now being imagined, analysts said.

Benjamin Mosse, director of mobile products at the Associated Press, said groups of friends could share news stories and offer comments within their group, instead of posting comments directly to a story. And down the road, he said the AP itself could use GPS technology to track what stories are being read in certain cities, zip codes or buildings.

"I would like to know what the editors inside of AP are reading," he said. The AP last week announced it is making content from its 700 news organization members available on Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry devices, and announced this summer it is offering the same service via iPhone.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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