Mobile Social Networking and LBS Mania

TechCrunch had an interesting article today with a nice summary of the state of affairs for social networking for iPhone. Even though it is mainly talking about iPhone applications, it highlights the state of affairs for mobilizing social networking in general. It also highlights the frenzy of capitalizing on location based services. Idea of LBS has existed out there for a while as various standardization committees like 3GPP and JCP have drafted various service and API specifications. But not until recently we have started getting our hands on devices that have the required hardware and companion API implementations to access that hardware.

Creepy Social: As mobile phones become mobile computers and pervasive everybody realizes that the social networking bandwagon needs to break out of the desktop. Then the question becomes what is special about being mobile. What added value mobility provides? Location based functionality seems to be the craze these days. There are quite a few LBS shopping and restaurant apps out there for example. When it comes to *social* the common theme seems to be about, for lack of better words, stalking people. I can look at the screen and see me and my friend colliding on a street or running away from each other. May be I am old fashioned, or an introvert, or may be I don’t have enough friends, but I am definitely not a luddite. I never get the idea of watching people as dots on my screen unless I am working for the Department of Homeland Security. In my mind it is a novelty that would wear off fast and serves very little real purpose in day to day use.

Augmented Social: I am also amazed by how many startups out there trying to do generally the same thing may be with subtle twists here and there. I can safely assume the business model for most of these guys end with getting bought out by one of big players when the shakeout happens and chances are those with target platform that extends beyond the iPhone are going to be luckier in such aspirations. As cool technologies such as Nokia‘s Point and Find , Sekai geo tagging camera app on iPhone, and of course the new Streetview technology in Android, used by apps such as in Enkin, come into play we can hope to see more contextually integrated and *purposeful* networking apps beside stalking others. Google calls it Location based Reality Augmentation. Hopefully that will lead to some real Social Augmentation rather than just networking.

Convergence & Shakeout: In the end players with clout and most control points are the ones that are going to rule the space –

  • Entrenched players with large user communities
  • Those who actually makes the mobile gadgets that we carry in our hands.

The social networking turf war seems to be shaping up between the device vendors and the established community providers. All the small niche community providers, and app developers are caught in the middle.  Device vendors like Nokia are rolling out their own social networking offerings like Ovi to offer a complete end to end package. Google will be doing the same with its Android and its paraphernalia of service offerings including Orkut. The niche networks all seem to slowly end up getting pulled in by the big guys as their investors sooner or later need to monetize their investments.

For existing players it is about mobilizing their communities, and for newcomers it is about building communities around *being mobile*. I do not know in long term which mobile devices will be ruling the market, but chances are most people will have one primary mobile device and whoever brings those devices to the users has a chance to shape the game. In certain situations I may use multiple devices such as when I am inside a car with a dedicated GPS unit besides my phone. But in the end most folks would ideally like to have one device they can carry with them. One can see that reflected in the convergence battle that is being fought between GPS, phone, PMP device manufactures. Everybody is busy moving into each other’s turf. How much longer before Kindle comes with a cellular or WiMAX radio.

iPhone and beyond: I think people generally do not mind inhabiting multiple communities (some reasonable number), in spite of all the data portability issues. But from the device standpoint most people generally like to get by with a single device if they can, given how much some of these new devices cost. And mobile phone would probably be the device of choice if it can do things *almost* as good as the dedicated devices. Building a community around a single vendor’s device or a single device platform or device category can be a bit presumptuous, may be unless you are one of the big vendors, particularly when multiple vendors are bringing out capable devices. Folks who seem to hang around web 2.0 unconferences all seem to carry iPhones, but unfortunately none of my friends do :-(. Many of them don’t even carry the brand of phone I use. I would get one too if I could get one without the subscription lock, and at a reasonable price (not around 1grand price tag)

Facebook, Myspace, Yahoo, LinkedIn and all the other established community providers, may be with the exception of wireless operators with community aspirations, do not provide handsets to users. So they cannot afford to lock out users of any particular handset vendor. They will have to support a wide range vendor devices. Locking out or ignoring devices does not help anybody when the goal is to build a community.

On the other side of the coin even though Nokia and Google would probably like their device users to spend more time in their own communities over others, chances are most socially savvy users with Facebook, Myspace legacy would balk at that. So they will have to enable access and data sharing across communities and figure out revenue sharing schemes.

Of all the mobile devices out there, iPhone with its high coolness quotient seems have generated most enthusiasm in the web 2.0 developer community and that enthusiasm is flowing into many of the social oriented mobile apps out there. But for now there is much larger community of non iPhone users, specially outside of US.  In the end, those caught-in-the-middle app developers who are able to do social networking on a broad range of devices and not just iPhone are most likely to be ones who would end up going out to dinner with the big guys. Or they can wait till iPhone rules the world. 🙂 May be someday it will, but not with the pricepoint it’s currently at.


1 Comment

Filed under mobile apps, social networking

One response to “Mobile Social Networking and LBS Mania

  1. Pingback: New Gadgets | Mobile Social Networking and LBS Mania

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