Inhouse mash-ups and more – mobility will soon transform social networking

Nokia, according to most studies, sells 40 per cent of all mobile phones worldwide, so it may seem unusual that it is pouring cash into a social networking Web site.

But that’s what it’s doing with Ovi , which the Finnish mobile equipment vendor launched earlier this year.

According to Randy Kerr, Ovi portends how mobility will change social networking for the better. Kerr has an insider’s view — he is a co-founder of Twango, a media-sharing site with social networking features that Nokia acquired last August. Renamed Share, his service is the first functioning piece of Ovi. Kerr and his four fellow Twango founders are now Nokia employees

According to Kerr, mixing mobility and a variety of socially-oriented services will significantly change the nature of social networking. In an interview, Kerr discussed those changes — and what he and Nokia see as the brave new world of social networking.

Nokia’s buying bingeNokia has been on something of a buying spree in the last year and Kerr says looking at the company’s acquisitions points to the changes we can expect in mobile social networking. Along with Twango, Nokia has acquired Loudeye, a music download service, gate5, a developer of navigation software, and Enpocket, which has a mobile ad platform.

The biggest acquisition, for US$8.1 billion, was Navteq, a major player in digital mapping and GPS technology. Another acquisition, Avvenu, has software that provides mobile access to PC-based files, including, significantly, iTunes. Its most recent buy, in January, was TrollTech, the developer of the Linux-based Qt software platform that’s used for mobile and desktop applications like Google Earth and Skype.

Also on the list is N-Gage, an older Nokia project that started out as hybrid game/cell phone hardware and has morphed into a software platform for gaming on smart phones.

Turning pieces into a new networkOvi will be the centralized interface, or portal, for all these seemingly disparate services, with more services eventually also being part of the mix, according to Kerr. While most of the services will include social networking, this vision isn’t about putting Facebook-style social networking on mobile phones.

“It’s not social networking just for the sake of social networking,” Kerr said. “Accumulating thousands of friends will eventually ring hollow.”

Rather, he said the future of social network will be about the content — and context — of the social interactions. The result will make social networking more useful and engaging for both consumers and business users.

“By socializing, getting the applications out of the PC and into context, you put the focus back on person-to-person contact,” Kerr said.

In particular, mobile social networking will expand to include presence, location and context. A simple version of presence has long been part of instant messaging programs, which can tell you if your contacts are available. Context builds on that — you may be available, but only to specific people or only after you arrive at a specific location.

“If you’re in a meeting, you might want your phone to mute itself and switch all calls to voicemail,” Kerr said. “That could become a setting in your calendar.” Or, you could receive calls from certain people in certain circumstances and, when your location or other circumstances change, you could receive calls from another set of people.

Kerr also foresees “in-house mash-ups” of services that could do things like provide GPS-based directions to a location shown in a photo seen on Share, or follow tags on video shot in a concert to downloads of the band’s music from a service like Loudeye.

Organic growthBut that’s just the beginning of this new vision of social networking. New and improved types of social interactions can grow naturally from this new type of context-aware content, Kerr said.

At the very least, mobility adds immediacy to social networking because social interactions will occur more frequently in real time. For instance, rather than waiting to get back to their desktop PCs, users will be able to send updates to their social networks from their mobile devices.

“By socializing, getting the applications out of the PC and into context, you put the focus back on person-to-person contact,” Kerr said.

A more complex example of this type of real-time mobile social networking is using local search capabilities to finding a restaurant in a strange city and then using GPS to find the near-by person who posted a review of the restaurant. Kerr calls this geo-social networking. Another example is using GPS to find nearby friends or business contacts to join you in that restaurant for a meal.

Because this new, intrinsically mobile type of social networking will grow naturally from the act of being mobile, it will feel natural to many users, Kerr maintained. Even better, Kerr said, Nokia and other phone vendors will be creating mobile devices that work not just on cellular networks but also on Wi-Fi and WiMax networks. That will significantly increase the user’s’ availability — and also their ability to connect with others in the network.

Business users get involvedFor now, Ovi is a being developed as a consumer service, but business uses are inevitable, Kerr said. He noted, for instance, that his Twango service originally had no enterprise focus, but that changed quickly.

“We found people were using it to extend their business contexts as well as their personal lives,” according to Kerr. “Contractors were sharing photos of progress via cell phones with customers on vacation, for instance. It also was being used for large file transfers that e-mail just wasn’t that reliable about handling.”

He came to think of it as a long-tail business service, he says. By that he means that it grew as naturally as a business tool as the divisions between users’ personal and work lives blurred.

The goals for Ovi, he says, are personal in nature, global in scope.

“Our hope is to reach lots of people around world using mobile devices to keep in touch with family, connect with new people to share interests and information peer-to-peer, direct, on an everyday basis.”


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