Technology

Social Networks Go Mobile with Handset Makers


Eager to travel, Facebook and MySpace are striking deals to be featured on BlackBerrys and iPhones and in cell phones from INQ and Nokia

Facebook and MySpace have found a new way onto your cell phone. Eager for airtime on the electronics device most commonly used by many consumers, social networks are sidestepping mobile-phone carriers and striking deals directly with handset makers to secure prominent placement on Web-enabled handsets.

Case in point: Facebook struck a deal to become a featured social network on a low-priced cell phone due this year from INQ, a London-based subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa. The company has integrated Facebook into every facet of its upcoming phone, INQ1, to be released in Britain and Australia by Christmas. The phone's address book displays contacts logged into Facebook; its camera posts pictures directly to the social networking site; and its home screen shows photos loaded by friends onto the site.

The arrangement between INQ and Facebook represents the tightest integration yet between a social network and a mobile-phone maker and heralds a new wave of competition between Facebook, News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace, and other mobile social networks.

Mobile Users Are Slow to Surf

Wireless carriers still matter because they can often decide which applications are allowed on a network. Over the past year or so, Facebook has inked deals to be featured on the portals of 100 carriers in more than 50 countries. MySpace is available on networks in 20 countries, where 27 carriers promote its service on their mobile portals. But working through carriers alone hasn't fostered the pace of adoption that social networks desire. Only 7% of U.S. cell-phone users accessed social networking sites with their phones in August, according to consultancy M:Metrics. The percentage was even lower in Britain, based on first-quarter figures compiled by researchers at Nielsen Mobile.

Many cell-phone users remain loath to try to surf the Web, much less log on to their network profile pages via mobile phone, explains Eden Zoller, an analyst with consultancy Ovum-RHK. Many phones lack good browsers. Applications downloaded from a carrier's Web portal often lack key features. The ones they do have can be hard to use.

Increasingly, social networks are working out some of these kinks by cozying up to manufacturers, in some cases elbowing their way onto phones at an earlier stage. The INQ1 phone lets Facebook users do pretty much everything they can on a PC—and then some. Julie Ask, research director at consultancy JupiterResearch, envisions a whole new category of social-network-ready phones, akin to music or mobile-TV phones. These would boast address books, cameras, and other features tied specifically to social networking sites.

A Social Network Apps Race

Better integration with handsets can dramatically increase user engagement with a mobile site. A year ago, Research In Motion (RIMM) released a Facebook application especially designed for BlackBerry devices. The app lets subscribers more easily use their handsets to befriend and interact with fellow Facebook users. One in 10 BlackBerry users now has the application, says Facebook Mobile Manager Henri Moissinac.

MySpace developed its own app for specific use with the Apple (AAPL) iPhone. About 15% of iPhone users have downloaded it, MySpace says. Now the social network is working with RIM to release a special BlackBerry application in the coming weeks. "We think it's some of the best work we've done to date," says John Faith, general manager and vice-president for mobile at MySpace. He declines to discuss specific features.

Facebook is using its closer integration with mobile phones to narrow the gap with MySpace in the U.S., says Nick Covey, an analyst at Nielsen Mobile. In August, Facebook's mobile user base was 93% as big as that of MySpace, compared with 60% a year earlier, according to Nielsen Mobile. Device integration is especially important in Europe, where most consumers can keep their handset when switching carriers.

Nokia Launches Its Own Network

Getting in a handset maker's good graces early also ensures prominent placement. Phones can't accommodate tight integration with more than one or two social networks. Facebook is in discussions to incorporate its features into phones from Nokia (NOK), the world's largest cell-phone maker, Moissinac says. MySpace is talking with several manufacturers, says Faith, who wouldn't identify them. Smaller networks have taken note. Friendster, a social network that has waned in the U.S. but is popular in Asia, recently struck a deal to provide its application on certain phones made by Nokia. "It's a big deal for Friendster because of Nokia's presence in that part of the world," says Friendster Marketing Director Jeff Roberto.

Even the handset makers themselves are promoting proprietary social networking features in phones. Nokia has integrated its own social networking site into some devices. It will find plenty of other networks to try to nudge aside there.

Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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