Orange Says Life Is Better on Its Mobile Social Network

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Mobile phone operator Orange plans to open Life Is Better On, its take on mobile social networking, on Wednesday.

With the service, called On for short, Orange aims to simplify the management of messages and presence information, allowing users to signal to whom they are available, and publish status updates to particular groups of contacts.

"We're not so arrogant as to compete with Facebook directly," said Jean-Louis Constanza, CEO of Orange Vallée, the mobile operator's startup incubator, at a recent presentation of the project in Paris.

Instead, On will communicate with other social networks and messaging systems, including Facebook, Twitter, Google's GTalk and Microsoft's Live Messenger, and will work whether or not contacts are also On users, said Giles Corbett, project manager for On at Orange Vallée.

The spirit of cooperation means the service will even be accessible to customers of other mobile phone networks -- although whoever their operator is, users will have to pay for data traffic according to their usual tariff.

They will also need to download an application to access the service. Initially, Orange will offer the software only for Android smartphones, but will port it to Apple's iPhone early next year, Constanza said. The company also plans other versions of the application for phones running Symbian and Windows Mobile software.

Orange has been developing the service for 18 months, and will extend its private beta test to a wider audience on Wednesday.

The public beta test will run for about a year, after which Orange hopes to embed the On client software in the smartphones it sells, said Corbett.

On groups contacts into a series of "worlds," allowing users to choose what messages or status information they share with each. Such controls allow users to be "in" to colleagues, but "out" to friends while at work, with the situation reversed in the evenings, for example.

"We knock when we visit, but when we ring, we let it ring louder and louder till someone picks up," said Corbett. "We wanted to build something fundamentally gracious, letting me respect others and letting them respect me, like letting them know whether it's a good time to call."

Contact information is stored on the phone, and synchronized with Orange's servers, allowing the company to perform a number of tricks with the data, including suggesting new contacts who already have your contact details in their address book, or figuring out whether a number belongs to a mobile or fixed-line -- useful for correctly routing SMS messages. It also allows On to automatically combine address book entries that have the same mobile number, because they are probably the same person, but not entries that have the same fixed-line number, because several people may share a fixed line.

Clicking on a contact will present a list of ways of reaching them, and all recent communications with that person in a single flow on the mobile phone screen, including calls made and missed, and messages sent or received by voicemail, e-mail or SMS (Short Message Service).

One of the things that distinguishes On from other social networking software is the effort Orange put into the social side of it, said Corbett. A team of four sociologists interviewed potential users in Europe and Japan to thrash out questions such as who "owns" messages sent via the service before the engineers were allowed to begin coding. Their conclusion: people expect personal messages to belong to the recipient, just like a letter, but general status updates belong to the writer, and can be deleted at will.

On top of that, Orange says, users can export or delete all of their data from the system whenever they wish, and Orange will only keep aggregate statistical information.

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