Feature Article

February 23, 2010

Social Media Offers Mobile Operators an Opportunity to Avoid 'Dumb Pipe' Status

'Forget apps. Forget mobile broadband. The single most exciting development in the mobile industry today is the explosion in use of social media on mobile devices,' says Declan Lonergan, Yankee Group VP.

In February 2010, as part of its new Mobile Media Metrics service, the GSM Association discovered that the most-visited U.K. mobile Internet site during December 2009 was Facebook.com.

Novarra likewise found that Twitter experienced 3,500 percent growth in page views during the first half of 2009.

Will consumers be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of potential mobile social media interactions, and ultimately become frustrated by multiple sign-ons and restrictive user interfaces on small mobile devices?

Is there a role for social media aggregation to help consumers manage their interactions more efficiently, and can mobile service providers do so?

How will consumers manage contacts on mobile devices? Will they rely on social media sites, or will device-based address books play a central role? If management is by the former, application providers gain more influence. If it is the latter, then mobile service providers could benefit. There clearly is an opportunity.

A 2009 survey of 3,000 European consumers commissioned by Critical Path illustrates some aspects of this pent-up demand. On average, consumers have four separate address books, including those on mobile phones and social networks. About 68 percent of respondents fail to update their address books with contact changes, and 91 percent are frustrated with their out-of-date contact information. About 82 percent expressed interest in a solution to synchronize their separate address books.

The logical aggregator functions could be provided by network service providers, handset vendors, Web companies and portals or social networking sites.

Some handset vendors are becoming more active in delivering Internet services to end-users and Nokia provides an obvious example. Its acquisition of Navteq in 2007 signaled the seriousness of its intention to expand beyond the traditional handset business into services, specifically navigation in this case.

In July 2009, Nokia acquired Cellity, which had developed a social address book for mobile devices that allows synchronization of phone contacts with Outlook, Twitter, AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, Plaxo and LinkedIn.

Nokia can leverage this capability to deliver location-enabled social media experiences on mobile devices. Nokia wants to create more customer loyalty to its already powerful brand by developing services that are tightly integrated with its devices. Closer integration of handset address books with social media services is one such opportunity.

Application providers also are moving in this direction of aggregation functions. Yahoo! OneConnect integrates contacts from users’ phones with their Yahoo! address book and social networks, including Facebook and Bebo.

The February 2010 launch of Google Buzz, and Google Buzz for mobile in particular, is a clear attempt to go head-to-head with leading social networking sites, says Lonergan.

In August 2009, Orange introduced its 'Social Life' social networking aggregation service and positioned it as a one-stop shop for social networking on mobile devices. Among other features, the service provides a single log-in to multiple social networks, enabling customers to view and post updates across three social networks-- Facebook, MySpace and Bebo--simultaneously.

Social Life provides ability to upload photos, update and monitor status, and keep track of friends’ status directly from the Social Life home screen, as well as send text messages.

In October 2009, Vodafone launched Vodafone 360. It provides aggregation of customers’ contacts, communities, communications and entertainment services using a single portal.

Vodafone’s personal address book is central to the implementation, as it brings together all of the users’ contacts from their mobile phones, social networks and other Internet accounts. The software also provides automatic synchronization between phone and PC.

Vodafone’s effort shows it is determined to avoid the dreaded 'dumb pipe' status. By assuming the role of aggregator, Vodafone is not competing with social networking sites. Instead, it’s attempting to position itself as its customers’ friend by facilitating fast and easy access to their most valued social media experiences. 

This is a competitive space, but one in which service providers  have important assets that will enable them to play a meaningful role in mobile consumers’ digital social lives, Lonergan says. Billing relationships are perhaps the single most important asset.

Service providers can  offer charging services to app developers and social media companies, extending to millions of customers. They also can integrate social media into their networks, enabling SMS and MMS interaction with social networking services, for example.

The largest operators also can dictate handset design and user interface in order to promote social media aggregation and integration with other handset features, and support multiple operating systems and handsets.

Automatic backup to the network also is an area of strength. They also have recognizable brands and reputations for quality.

Buti If operators confine their role to aggregating social media in one place, they will fail, Lonergan saysl. There are other companies that can fulfill that role perfectly well without any assistance from operators. Instead, they must add more value for end-users.

They must make their aggregation solution indispensible by integrating it with assets that only the MNO controls or can access. The address book is a good place to start. Beyond that, they should integrate customer information and context and location data into social media.

Also, operators should 'forget about monetizing social media,' he says. Operators should focus on where they can add value, and that is in facilitating access, aggregating across multiple services, and integrating those services with core handset and network capabilities.

Gary Kim is a contributing editor for MobilityTechzone. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Patrick Barnard

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