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Start-up Wichro takes leap from obscurity

San Francisco company that wants to take mobile social networks beyond Twitter gets unexpected boost after service chosen as an Apple "staff pick" for the iPhone.

One morning in April, Wichro, a San Francisco-based start-up that develops software for mobile networking, noticed that people had started to use its service in the thousands. There was confusion at the office. Zkout had just been released as a first beta with no marketing efforts whatsoever.

"We got no warning," founder and CEO Christian Wiklund said in a recent interview with CNET

Picked by Apple, Christian Wiklund and Niklas Lindstrom are ready to take the big leap. Carl-Gustav Linden/CNET

While the seven employees at the year-old company worked around the clock to make sure servers could cope with the traffic, the reason for the jump became clear: the folks at Apple had made Zkout a "staff pick" among more than 1,000 applications for the iPhone.

"That was fun for our team," Wiklund said.

A month later, Zkout has 20,000 users (a third of them with iPhones) and the company is working hard to take the next step this summer--going commercial by getting the attention of carriers.

The first analysis of user behavior indicates Zkout is addictive. "Some are logged on around the clock," Wiklund said.

The focus group for Wichro includes people between 16 and 28 years old. "For them, push doesn't work anymore," Wiklund said.

Wichro wants to take mobile social networking beyond Twitter with a location-based Internet experience that Wiklund says comes close to cloud computing. Users can share messages, pictures, and video in real time and search neighborhood streets and bars for friends. Zkout is built on Adobe's Flex 3 platform for the PC, and on the mobile Web platform for a phone.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Loopt has a similar service, used by Sprint and Verizon. But according to Wiklund, the customer still needs to download and install a client on the phone to use this location-based service, which can only be shared by other customers of that same network.

"Our strategy is that the telecom carrier only needs to place a link on their (wireless application protocol) portal. If the service doesn't work they remove the link, instead of having to recall all the mobile phones. This also means shorter lead times for the operator," Wiklund said.

Zkout is designed to work on all phones, with limited features on simple models and a full experience on Web-enabled devices.

"Everyone should be able to join. The choice of social contacts should not depend on what sort of technology I have in my pocket," says engineer Niklas Lindstrom.

The location of the phone is based on cell tower triangulation and positioning is so far manual, until later when Zkout comes equipped with automation with the help of Yahoo FireEagle. Triangulation is a "low-tech" approach compared with GPS, which is a feature of newer high-end phones, but Lindstrom says it works very well also inside buildings where GPS transmitters are shut off. The high power consumption is another critical issue with GSP as well as many red-tape barriers.

"Cell towers are a very good technology for social networks," Lindstrom says.

But is there really a need for one more social-networking site? Despite its novelty, Wichro is far from being alone. What makes an infant company with limited resources believe it can survive among big companies such as Google, MySpace, and Facebook?

"There is no doubt that location-based social networking will be big in two or three years," Wiklund said. "But I don't think we will see MySpace or Facebook there, they are already behind. They are doing retrofits of things that are built for the PC while we built our be mobile, real-time, and location-centric" from the beginning, he said.