Social networking tools aren’t really new in the computing world. After all, AOL was the granddaddy of social networking environments back in the Internet’s early days. But the extension of these environments to mobile devices is new. According to an Informa Telecoms report, about 50 million people, or about 2.3 percent of all mobile users, already use the mobile phone for social networking, from chat services to multimedia sharing. The company forecasts that the penetration rate will mushroom to at least 12.5 percent in five years.
Despite the obvious user interest and early traction in mobile social networking, early forays have been limited by technical challenges with functionality, performance and the ability to deliver user-friendly interfaces. To date, most mobile social networking implementations have focused on providing users with a subset of features that are available on existing online Web applications, but no one has delivered a complete and compelling mobile experience for users that will drive mainstream adoption and sustained usage.
The Complete Experience
A complete mobile social networking experience is composed of three specific elements:
- Sharing and storing personal information and profiles, including browsing for friends and contacts, reading status messages, commenting on photos and blogs, uploading photos to a personal profile and updating personal status messages.
- Asynchronous messaging, including e-mailing and sending messages. These types of messages are generally stored and are available in offline mode.
- Real-time messaging, including instant messaging and the ability to chat synchronously with friends. This type of communication is online, interactive and collaborative in nature.
For their mobile users, the current major communities attempt to offer a mix of services from these three elements. The more traditional communities, like Yahoo and MSN, offer an application/service for each element such as MSN Messenger, MSN Hotmail and MSN Spaces. Recent social networks such as Facebook and MySpace offer a more integrated experience, and yet none of the solutions currently covers all three components in one seamless application. Without providing all of these elements, we believe that the mobile operators will be unable to deliver the social networking experience that consumers expect on their mobile handset.
We are also seeing a growing number of social network communities coming online each day. New sets of diverse and niche social networks are being launched around any topic, theme or interest people may share, such as cultural-specific networks, special-interest-based networks (politics, nonprofits); local community-based networks (schools, volunteer organizations); professional-based networks such as LinkedIn and other professional associations and enterprise-based networks.
It is not unrealistic to consider a scenario where an individual would belong to a number of networks. While this is easily managed on the desktop, this creates an important real estate problem on the mobile handset. As the core of any social networking site is based on the same fundamentals, we can easily imagine the benefits for a user if they could launch a single mobile application and access all their social network communities instead of launching different mobile applications.
Apply the same line of thinking to the address book (or contact list). While short message service, instant messaging and e-mail are using different addressing methods — phone number, IM client ID, or e-mail address — they relate to unique individuals who have different means of communication. End-user needs research indicates that consumers are seeking a unified address book where all relevant contact addresses (portal IM, e-mail or phone number) are stored in a coherent and unified way. Also, when it comes to social networks, mobile operators need to think about efficient ways to manage contact lists, as many consumers have thousands of contacts whereas many of the lower-end feature phones cannot handle such extensive contact lists.
A Critical Junction
Finally, there are a range of services emerging on the horizon that will improve the overall mobile social networking user experience. For example, location and presence services can facilitate social networking and collaboration. Single address books enable subscribers to connect quickly and easily. For most users, the current reality is that no single place exists from which these services can be offered.
The future of mobile social networking is at a critical junction. The market demand is ripe, and carriers and communities must find a simple way to bring the best of these communities to the mobile masses. The key is a unified social networking messaging platform that will allow the mobile operator to deliver greater value to their subscribers, empowering them to easily add, remove and manage their profiles from multiple participating social networking communities within a single application. Mobile service providers that seize the opportunity to deliver a streamlined social networking platform that works ubiquitously across consumer phones through to advanced smartphones will reap the rewards of higher average revenue per user, increased usage, greater user retention and expanded brand loyalty.
Jim Knapik is president and CEO of Oz Communications, a developer of mobile Internet solutions such as integrated messaging and e-mail.