The mobile social: Not ready for prime time?

With Yahoo throwing its hat in the ring, all eyes are on location-based services as the app that will bring mobile social networking to the forefront.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

There's a reason why no mobile social-networking company has broken out yet. They haven't found themselves--on a map, that is.

Mobile networking, at least in the U.S., remains a limited extension of the social-media industry's biggest PC-based players: lighter, messaging-focused versions of Facebook and MySpace.com, as well as instant-messaging software like Yahoo Messenger and AIM. Social-networking start-ups with a major or exclusive focus on mobile use, like Twitter, have failed to amass a following outside the alpha-geek crowd. For mobile social networking to really take off, it's going to have to move beyond providing new ways for people to bug their friends with text messages.

Yahoo demonstrated OneConnect at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Marguerite Reardon/CNET Networks

Recent announcements and developments in the mobile media world have indicated that location-based services are going to be the game-changer. These applications, using GPS technology or cell tower triangulation, are being talked about as the move that will push mobile social networking forward--and with good reason. Crafted correctly, a location-aware mobile service could not only tell you which of your friends are nearby, but also inform you of the nearest place where you could grab a slice of pizza (and whether your neighbors recommend it)--as well as serve up advertisements that give "hyperlocal" a whole new meaning.

And with Yahoo's just-announced OneConnect launching in a few months--featuring "proximity alerts" when friends also using the service come within a certain distance of one another--it's clear that the biggest names on the Web see this as a promising market, too.

But don't hold your breath. Location awareness is going to make huge strides in how mobile devices are used, but it's not going to be a quick revolution. Services like Yahoo OneConnect, though brimming with hype, face both technological and psychological barriers that have kept their progress slow and will keep any company, start-up or conglomerate, from making an immediate splash in the space.

Right off the bat, there's the gadget factor: A whole lot of people are using cell phones that can't handle geotagging or "proximity alerts," and they aren't going to upgrade anytime soon. Those of us living in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area can easily forget that not everyone has a BlackBerry or an iPhone. Not everyone has a data plan, a built-in camera, or an unlimited text-message plan--let alone GPS capabilities. Plenty of people don't use their cell phones for anything other than boring old phone calls.

And even if they can handle GPS or the lower-tech triangulation, there's a good chance many cell phone customers don't even know about it. "Getting the customer to understand that (GPS) is on their phone has historically been the biggest hurdle," said telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan. "All these cool technologies are available on the phone but nobody knows it. Customers don't know it."

Beyond handsets, cellular carriers play a crucial role in whether a location-based mobile service can take off. Loopt, a mobile social-networking site that relies on location awareness, is still only available on Sprint Nextel and its Boost Mobile subsidiary. Buddy Beacon, a similar service launched by mobile virtual network operator Helio, is available exclusively to the carrier's subscribers. To whittle it down even more, such applications are only available on compatible handsets.

There's a "lack of ability all around," said John Poisson, founder and CEO of mobile photo-sharing start-up Radar.net. "If you're talking about location-based services that are social in nature, you've completely broken the model because you can't do anything social with just a subset of an audience."

"It's like that old William Gibson cliche that everyone keeps recycling," said Michael Sharon, co-founder of geographic tagging site Socialight, which has been making small steps toward integrating location awareness into its mobile service. "It's that the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed yet."

A service like Yahoo OneConnect, backed by a well-connected dot-com giant rather than early-stage investor cash, could even the playing field with cross-carrier compatibility, but few details have been released about the product--and a beta test release is months away. It's a gamble as to which phones and carriers will actually work with it.

Privacy worries
There's a bigger issue, though. Beyond any technological challenges, a sizable portion of the population might not like the idea that their locations could be broadcast to others--or logged by their cell phone providers. "There are big privacy concerns," Poisson said. "Privacy is a huge concern when it comes to location-based services, especially when it comes to mobile devices. Any time that the end user doesn't have control over who's knowing where they are, whether it's another human being that they know or don't know, or a company that's collecting that data on an automatic basis, that starts to become problematic."

Some Facebook users were up in arms over their profile updates being shared on the News Feed and later their third-party shopping activity showing up in Beacon advertisements. What would mobile phone users think if their location were to be broadcast to a big list of social-networking contacts? Such a service would clearly have to be opt-in, which mitigates some of the Big Brother-esque worries but can also slow adoption rates.

Socialight's Michael Sharon suggested that location-aware social media will have to find some creative new applications so that it's not just a way to stalk your friends. "I think perhaps one of the reasons they haven't taken off is because friend-finding is an edge use case," he said. "It's the first thing that comes to mind, but it's perhaps not the most comfortable thing."

Socialight, which Sharon co-founded with Dan Melinger, has started to roll out location-aware features, but the start-up has stopped short of the Buddy Beacon route and currently only plans to use location as a way to show you which bars, restaurants, and other attractions (as tagged and annotated by fellow users), are nearby. Helio has launched a similar service and plans to work GPS into it soon. "It's not going to broadcast that to anyone," Sharon said of Socialight's foray into geotagging. "It's just going to show you what's around you."

Perhaps that's the natural order of things. GPS and other location-aware technologies will likely transform other aspects of the mobile experience--search, events listings, business reviews, not to mention mapping and directions--before they move on to influence social networking. After all, this is how the Internet as a whole evolved. Most Web users were trusting Google and Yahoo with their search queries long before they were comfortable uploading dozens of photo albums to Facebook.

This could be a disappointment to those digital socialites drooling at the prospect of interactive maps that chart out exactly where their friends are at a given moment. But on the bright side, this means it'll probably be awhile before your boss is using a BlackBerry to learn exactly where you went on your lunch break.