Scott Driggers is the Co-Founder and CEO of Gemini Mobile Technologies. Prior to Gemini, Mr Driggers served with Vodafone AirTouch, where he held various line management positions in marketing, planning, strategy and business development. During this period, Mr Driggers served on the board of directors of the six Digital Tuka Group companies as well as the IMT-2000 company - a joint venture between AirTouch, BT and Japan Telecom. Mr Driggers was also part of the international marketing organization for AirTouch Cellular. Mr Driggers holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in Business Economics from Colorado College. Mr Driggers was a member of the 1988 US Olympic Team.
Social networking, primarily an Internet/PC phenomenon, is beginning to migrate to mobile phones. This seems natural since our mobile phones are with us throughout the day wherever we go. With mobile social networking, we will take our social universe with us. This phenomenon is growing and taking shape in Japan. Wireless social networking depends upon adapting social networking sites to the small screens and keyboards of most cell phones, and upon the growth of third-generation mobile broadband.
Don’t look now, but the mobile phone is beginning to resemble a wireless social network. When we drop the device in our pocket or purse, we are taking our entire galaxy of human relationships with us - family and friends, lovers and acquaintances, people within our inner circle and in more distant orbits are all but a few clicks away. Version 2.0 of this idea is now taking shape in Japan, the centre of the wireless device universe. As with many other trends brewing across the Pacific, this one will have consequences for both North American and European carriers. The wireless social network of the future will borrow some elements from conventional social networks and virtual communities, but adapt them for a smaller screen and a more limited keyboard, while taking advantage of high-speed data networks. Such adaptation will be essential because mobile devices are not equivalent to small PCs. In footprint, screen size, input method and, most especially, daily use, the devices are very distinct. The difference between the current version of a portable social network and the one just on the horizon is in the rich presentation of the community itself. Today, mobile phone interfaces are designed to emphasize one-on-one connections. The device connects you with another person. In the future, it will connect you with a group, giving members of a social network the ability to share their lives, via text and images, on a selected basis; the emphasis here is on selected. As with the fixed Internet, you will be able to maintain different communities of various sizes and interconnections. Each community will have its own implicit rules about what information is discussed and shared. The user interface to make this possible is a significant departure from the two-dimensional text-and-icon ‘celltop’ screen found on today’s phones. Instead, it will use a 3D environment to represent the social network itself, including a personal avatar that moves from one virtual ‘place’ to another. This metaphor makes it easy to meet and interact with others, share photos, and communicate via different types of messaging, such as instant messaging. Users can personalize an individual space to suit their preferences and invite friends to visit virtually. Because the social network is represented as a place, not just a list, the orientation is always towards the group. How will this work on a daily basis? Let’s consider a likely customer - a woman in her early 20s. She wakes up on a Saturday morning, picks up her mobile device from the nightstand, gazes at the screen and is immediately drawn into a three-dimensional representation of her community. She might first ‘walk’ over to her mail box to see who has sent her messages the previous night. Then she might move to the photo room to see if an online photo she posted last night of her dinner with a blind date has attracted any comments from her innermost circle of friends. She might go beyond her home to see who else is online and what they are doing. Each friend, represented by an avatar, can be reached via chatting. New friends can be made through on-line ‘ice-breaker’ games or activities. Also beyond the virtual home, a shopping world awaits, complete with every fashion store from Juicy Couture to Louis Vuitton. As this scenario suggests, it is the mobile phone, not the PC, which is the obvious place for a social network to reside. That is where social networks are indeed headed - not chained to the desk, but available throughout the day, from nightstand to shopping mall to lunch stop and evening stroll, right on back to the nightstand again. This portability puts you in much closer virtual proximity to the important people in your life, leading to interactions that are more casual and frequent, and so tend to better weave into the fabric of our lives. The first glimpse of this concept of a wireless social network can be seen in Japan’s SoftBank Mobile Corporation, called S! TOWN. The service has already attracted hundreds of thousands of customers. That Japan should be first is not surprising. The country’s densely populated cities, complex social networks and gadget-loving people combine to make Japan a living crucible for mobile device service and feature experimentation, with the best getting exported to the West. There are other East-West connections, as well. In Japan’s comparatively small homes, privacy is at a premium and, indeed, is often more easily found in public spaces. North American teenagers, who also crave privacy, have made the same discovery. Japan also points to the future because of its early emphasis on personal mobile services. Whereas a decade ago, US carriers focused almost exclusively on bringing productivity to business users; in Japan, new services have always targeted the personal user. Teenage Japanese girls are typically the earliest adaptors, followed by teenage boys and, finally, their parents. Take a ride on the Tokyo subway and you can see the shape of the future. In this public space, where voice calls are discouraged or prohibited, people of all ages have come to realise that communicating with a social network does not require a 17-inch computer monitor or a full keyboard. Of course the young are particularly adept: there are Japanese teenagers who seem to be unaware of any limitations to a phone’s tiny keypad and appear capable of writing an entire novel on their mobile phones. New markets for carriers For carriers in the West, wireless social networks represent a potentially new market niche, one that could drive more traffic during both peak and off-peak hours, alike. That’s because social networks are, by their very nature, comprised of ‘sticky’ applications that customers like to use on an ongoing basis. What this means is that much of the data currently exchanged over the Internet could some day run over carrier networks, instead, boosting average revenue per user, reducing churn, stimulating content discovery and attracting advertisers. The requisite handsets have already arrived. Many of today’s mobile phones, with their high-resolution colour screens, fast processing (such as that delivered by the ARM-7 chipset), and long battery life are already made-to-order for mobile social networking. Although miniature QWERTY keyboards such as those found on the Treo are nice, rapidly moving thumbs can work just fine on a conventional keypad, especially when combined with predictive text technologies like Nuance’s T9. The support infrastructure will require an investment in a software platform that is both scalable to reach millions of users simultaneously and cost-effective to generate a good return on investment for carriers and content providers. In the US, bandwidth is becoming less a problem with the continuing build out of 3G networks. As high-speed networks and WiMAX take off around the world, they will furnish fertile ground for mobile social networks. Already, the rate of wireless mobile device adoption is outpacing PCs across the world. And while we in the US will undoubtedly adapt more PC applications, such as YouTube and Facebook, than our Japanese counterparts, we will make the mobile phone an extension of our social lives in our own way. We Homo sapiens are social animals and have connected with each other since the beginning of the species, but never have the possibilities of connection been so varied, interesting or fluid as those made possible by the mobile phone.