Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Social Goes Mobile (And Vice-Versa)

Mobile Monday Boston Event on Mobile Social NetworkingYesterday's Mobile Monday Boston event titled "Mobile Social Networking" was a blast. Outstanding panel, hot subject, interesting venue (Orange lab in Cambridge), good discussion. In fact, the event sold out maybe a week before, so the place was packed. I also found it interesting to find many new faces in the crowd, which I contributed to local media and 'web' social players seeking forays into mobile (and there are lots of them in Boston: from younger plays like RPM, creators of utterz and foonz who just got some funding, to more established players like LinkedIn).

To begin with some coverage of the talk, I found the following comment made by the panel as very motivational. This was related to the case for mobile social networking. and the comment was:
"25% of cell phone users are talking to themselves on their phones". WOW.
More than the need for connectivity for the purpose of productivity or fun, more than watching videos, more than anything else, people have a need to connect and stay connected with the network of family, colleagues, friends etc.

With that highly personalized, intimately close mobile connected device, that's on us almost 24/7, it makes perfect sense. People can "broadcast" themselves as they "do stuff", they could broadcast their personality through the personalization of their phone, they can be alerted of their friend's doings and location in a very effective way. Further, if the phone could transmit the 'context' the user is experiencing (location, time, weather, activity,...) that would be really cool.
Getting in front of users: the approach of mobile-optimized WAP pages is preferred as a mechanism to get in front of users compared to the alternative of getting an application on the phone. And naturally so, the headache of creating a mobile application, optimizing to each phone, certification, distribution...headache. Instead, simple access to a WAP page is probably much easier, it serves the business model and distribution strategy well:

  • The business model, so it sounds, for all of the vendors, is ad-based revenue. Two comments on that:
    • First, if you are to base your business model on advertising, I think you want to have those ads appear on WAP pages that users will hit anyway. The reason being is that if this was a local application that would suddenly show rotating ads, users would quickly become aware that they are actually paying for those ads to come down on their data charges, and wouldn't be happy with that. On the web(/WAP), however, users are used to see ads and probably see them as a natural part of the experience
    • Second comment is somewhat pessimistic: sure, lots of web 2.0 cool sites gather eyeballs and get some advertising revenue based on that. They are relatively cheap to setup and what it really takes is the idea to differentiate. So minimal expense, and if advertising doesn't end up covering the cost, no biggie. Can one make the same assumptions in mobile? Is mobile as open, easy to penetrate (and easy to pull down) ecosystem as the web? How much advertising will the crowd accept? Isn't basing your revenue model on advertising somewhat adventurous?
  • The distribution strategy is also served well by serving WAP pages: the vendors can easily go off-deck globally, getting significant adoption (MoCo Space reported 1M users in 6 months) while, BTW, offering on-deck deals to the operators. This will appeal to both operators and vendors, I believe, as operator deals don't stand in the way of adoption, and vendors can have better understanding of their potential (based on real adoption) as they come to pitch operators
In terms of services, several different options were presented: PadPaw provides SMS-based alerts for predefined groups, so it's like Yahoo groups, only for mobile. MoCo Space and Social Light, I think, deliver a WAP-based social community with various features. Synthesis Studios deliver an interesting client application that, amongst other things, it searches nearby friends using bluetooth (Ah...How many people have BT turned on by default?).

Two other interesting figures were Mattias from Nokia and Jason from Orange, who moderated the panel. Mattias focused on the recent Nokia MOSH ("Mobile-Share") venture. It's really interesting that a vendor would take such an open and community oriented step, but on the other hand, looking at ~3M developers on forum Nokia (which, I think, is one of the best mobile communities), this was a natural step forward. So MOSH allows anyone to create applications and content, and distribute it to anyone else.

Jason did a great job moderating the panel, which lead me to "grill the operator" a bit on the operator's view on mobile social networks. See, if you you take any piece of technology, or game, that an operator needs to seriously consider, there are obvious technology, vendor selection and business decisions to be made. Now here, IMHO, the challenges are even more complex: Can an operator base their monetization on advertising (when the whole advertising game for mobile, in truth, has just began)? How can an operator make a reasonable vendor selection with hundreds of communities already alive? how does an operator leverage their existing resources (address book, multimedia resources, content)? Do operators create their own communities or integrate into existing ones?

These are all tough questions that Jason and his colleagues will need to answer as they build the case for mobile social networks one day. My sense is that these are still early days in the mobile social networking space, and the dust has to settle down a bit for operators to join the game.

In terms of existing forays into mobile social networking by the big players, there were limited announcements between MySpace and Cingular and MySpace & Rogers (in Canada). Facebook seems to optimize the mobile experience by rendering only mobile-appropriate content on the page.

I'd be interested to hear the conversation between Facebook and Orange, if it ever happens :-)

I want to thank mobile Monday organizers, the panel, Orange and the audience for a truly great evening.

BTW- congrats to the folks at Enpocket on the acquisition by Nokia announcement. Good job guys, hope you get something out of it.


henry petermonsan said...

Excellent, informative post.

Doris said...

We’ll release a mediaBuzz feature soon to help user connect and stay connected through online media publishing and sharing, as part of the MobileLiving isayusay service that updates a user’s address book and event calendar online, and downloads to the cell phone with one click. Also, the cycle-thru browser on cell phones delivers seamless browsing and listening experience with voting and RSVP options, and fast lookups for click-to-call, text messaging shoutouts, and quicklists. This connect-centric social network model might take off if the all-you-can-eat data plan becomes economical.