I’ve read with interest the article from Katie and (as usual) the all-over-the-place commentary from the readers @ GigaOM’s article on Mobile Social Networks. While I’m not really sure exactly how an iPod is allegorical to mobile social networking I can speak in more concrete terms, as the author of EQO‘s business plan and the company’s former VP of Marketing & Alliances, on what I think are the prospects for companies in the space.
“Mobile social networking” has attracted massive hype these days but the marketplace suffers from ill-defined value propositions, a general lack of actual day-to-day users, and some wildly unjustifiable valuations and raises: (intercasting) (EQO). Katie argues this point fairly well.
But I think Katie misses the mark on one issue which is more nuanced: the reason that these companies can’t go it alone is the mobility, not the sociality. While it is arguably true that startups can’t take on the task of building mobile-specific social networks, what is tougher to contest is that it is way more difficult to extend the benefits and compelling nature of social networking into the mobile arena without the help of two key groups.
The reason is simple. The expectations of users. Mobile phones are realtime devices. They are tools which we only infrequently use to “browse” and “create” — that’s what we have PCs for. Shozu and Radar do a good job of enabling activities we already value on our (camera) phones … uploading photos to a more useful medium for sharing.
But once you’ve done that — what’s social about my phone?
Well, most notably, the fact that I can call people and send and receive text messages. This is probably for a long time going to remain my phone’s primary utility. It really takes no great leap of logic to discern that when we talk about mobile social networking, I would expect that those same functions should apply, though using the context and value created by my identity and buddies within that community.
So unless you’re talking about extending person-to-person communications to my phone, really the definition of “mobile social networking” has been conveniently limited for some folks to building tools to make uploading photos from my mobile device to a given community easy. Great, but how is that worth tens of millions of dollars to anyone (or any company?). And why on earth would it be an obstacle for an internal build? Heck, my friend Vitaly will even sic his team of engineers to build a cross-platform uploading app for you in a matter of months for cents on the dollar.
I might be accused of being an idealist were it not for the huge amount of capital flowing into this particular field. Capital creates expectations, and expectations require upstream revenue generation and/or strategic goals to be met.
There are two major groups of players standing in the way of this. They are handset manufacturers, and wireless carriers. The manufacturers have maintained a Balkanized system of disparate platforms for which there are few competent common standards; the carriers remain curators of the walled garden approach, which particularly limits the capability of realtime applications riding on the mobile platform: They hold the purse strings.
The Mobile Social Networking guys need to nudge up against both. So Katie’s right in that they can’t go it alone, but wrong (I think) in sizing up the players they need to get next to. While MySpace, FaceBook, LinkedIN et al can (and will) benefit from a mobile social networking platform, the truly valuable functions (from both an end user and revenue perspective) are real-time. And the gatekeepers to the world of realtime interaction in mobile are the carriers and handset makers — you can’t build it without them.