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.