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Vodafone 360 service knits phones and social networks over the Web

The operator will replace Vodafone Life with a new service offering an app store and social-networking features to its customers, but you don't have to be on the company's network to get it

Once upon a time, if you wanted to download some new swag for your phone, like a ring tone or wallpaper, you browsed to the pixellated, walled garden of your network's virtual shop and laid down an exorbitant amount of cash. But the advent of smart phones like the iPhone, Android-based HTC Hero and BlackBerry brought app stores that funnelled your hard earned cash into the phone makers' pockets, and left the networks to provide the data connections and not much else.

In a bid to avoid becoming a so-called 'dumb pipe', Vodafone is forcibly inserting its own finger into the pie with the 360 service, which will replace Vodafone Live. One of the constituent offerings is an app store that will supply applications for a range of different phones. But, although Vodafone says that it'll have 1,000 apps at launch, the app store is the least of the new service's features.

The company hopes 360 will become a clearing house for your social networks, bringing your online friends together with the contacts in your phone's address book. When it goes live, you'll be able to manage your contacts on your phone or on the 360 Web site.

Sadly, Twitter won't be part of 360 when it launches, but the operator insists that it won't be long before it joins Facebook, Windows Live Messenger and Google Talk as part of the service.

Photos, status updates and your location, nicked from your phone's GPS, will all be accessible through the Web site, as well as via two specialised Samsung phones, and an app that can be installed on other phones -- mostly those running the Symbian operating system, found on most Nokia devices. 

The two Samsung phones, the H1 and less expensive M1, will have 360 coursing through their veins and support some extra features, such as a Google Latitude-like tool that shows you which of your H1- or M1-sporting friends are nearby. We'll have hands-on photos of the Samsung H1 and M1 later, so keep your peepers peeled.

Four new Nokia phones will be available with a 360 app pre-installed. The app offers most of the new service's features but lacks the jazzy 3D view of your address book that sorts your peeps by different variables and lets you swipe through them, in the style of Cover Flow.

A free app will also be available for other phones, including the iPhone. That app only provides access to the 360 address book, without the other features.

You don't have to be a Vodafone customer to sign up for the Web-based service or use the 360 app on your phone. That should help the service catch on, and aid Vodafone in snaffling some lucre from other operators.

You may be wondering why in the name of Lucifer we need another social-networking aggregator or app store in our over-burdened lives. Vodafone 360 is similar to Nokia's Ovi in that it's trying to bring the wonder of apps to the huge number of mid-range phones that have supported apps for ages, but make it too hard to find and install them, since they can't be found in one place.

We think Vodafone has a couple of big advantages that could make 360 a goer. Firstly, if you're a Vodafone customer, it can bill purchases right to your phone bill, rather than requiring use of a credit card or PayPal. That's the 'micropayments' holy grail -- you can quickly and easily spend tiny amounts. For example, Vodafone tells us it's done a deal with Italian newspaper La Repubblica to push headlines to phones and let people pay a few pennies to read the whole article. That sort of feature is hardly worth logging into PayPal for, but the income will add up for the vendor.

Secondly, deals with partner networks mean Vodafone can offer app developers a route into the pockets of 1.1bn customers around the world. That's means there's potentially a substantial amount of dosh up for grabs, even if we're talking pennies per punter. Of course, developing for all that different hardware is no piece of cake, but Vodafone is offering an open API using JIL, and a split that gives developers 70 per cent of the profits. It's also running an app-developing contest backed up by a motivational €1m prize.

Vodafone says the 360 service and its new phones will launch before Christmas, but you can register your interest now at the 360 Web site, where you can also take the service for a simulated test drive and try to figure out what the heck it is.