The Sydney Morning Herald has just released an article titled Social networkers get mobilised, which examines how social networking is shifting to mobile platforms. I’m happy that the journalist used what I felt were my most important comments in my interview for the article:
But while initiatives in the US, Japan and Switzerland are flying thick and fast, Australia’s slow entry into the third-generation mobile market, and the prohibitive cost of mobile data downloads has meant that comparable services here remain thin on the ground, said Ross Dawson, the chairman of technology consultancy, Future Exploration Network.
Although the mobile phone offers an “extremely appropriate platform for social networks,” he said current pricing structures were holding back the market.
“The fundamental problem is in the way Australian mobile companies set up charges for data downloads compared with the US where most plans are based on on unlimited data downloads. This means people are far less likely to experiment with data transfers of multimedia based content,” he said.
In Japan, a company called ImaHima has also broken new ground, with technology that can locate where friends are at any given time for those looking to meet up. According to Mr Dawson, the service has been widely adopted in Japan, and could also prove a hit in the local market.
“People are currently using text for this purpose, which is pretty clunky. There would be immense value in having an easy mobile interface to see where a defined group of people is located, using instant messaging or chat. The latent demand is there, but it is up to Australian telecommunications companies to come up with a useful product at reasonable price,” Mr Dawson said.
There are a few critical points to add here. The first is that a large proportion of social networking will shift to mobile platforms. In particular, knowing where your friends are and where the action is are vital social functions, which text messaging only begins to address. This is going to be a very big market. I mentioned Imahima, which while it hasn’t grown strongly recently has a great product. Imahima was licensed by Telstra a couple of years ago in association with its deal with NTT DoCoMo, though it is not clear whether Telstra intends to do anything with it.
Second, the cost of mobile data is a critical enabler of these applications. The reason the US has leapfrogged Europe and Asia in some mobile applications over the last years, after being miles behind at the turn of the century, is that they have highly attractive mobile data plans. In most cases there is unlimited data and Internet access on an attractive plan. One Australian executive was recently showing off his mobile Internet access. I asked him what his mobile plan was, and he told me A$950 per month. This is hardly populist pricing. Australia is in danger of falling behind because of its telcos’ extortionate mobile data pricing policies. I will be beating this drum more in the future.
Third, while telcos should be frontrunners in mobile social networking, few have done well, apart from Swisscom, Switzerland’s leading telco. You may recall that Google bought the excellent mobile networking platform Dodgeball in May 2005 (and was rumored to be buying a similar service Meetroduction), which at the time seemed to indicate that Google was keen to get into this space. While O’Reilly Radar sees promise here, others wonder what Google has done with the service. In those countries where mobile devices can easily and cheaply access the Internet, mobile social networking is easy to implement. In other countries, telcos largely control access to these services, and are not exploiting what could be a great opportunity, if correctly marketed and priced.