Wireless Industry Cozies Up to Social Networking
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Everybody at last week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona wanted to be the new best friend of the social networks.
From the world's biggest phone maker, Nokia, to tiny Irish semiconductor start-up Movidia, delegates to the wireless industry's biggest annual gathering couldn't stop talking about Facebook, MySpace and Bebo.
The majority of visits to such online communities are still made by people sitting at a computer telling their friends where they are and how they are feeling, exchanging opinions on their favorite movies and music or uploading videos.
The top executive at MySpace, owned by News Corp., said members reaching the network from mobile phones had quadrupled in the last year to 20 million, out of 135 million unique visitors in total, and Facebook has seen a similar leap.
"This is really just the start of where we're going with this," MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe told Reuters.
MySpace announced deals at the fair with Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and Palm, who will adapt some of their phones to make uploading pictures or video to the social network a matter of a single push of a button.
The company is confident that most smartphone makers will feature MySpace in the coming year.
The so-called Facebook phone or Social Mobile made by INQ, a spin-off of Hutchison Whampoa's 3, won handset of the year award from the show's hosts, the GSM Association -- and everyone involved was eager to claim a share of the credit.
"Qualcomm's integrated chipset technology and BREW software have enabled INQ... to realize the potential in mobile social networking," gushed Enrico Salvatori, the head of chipmaker Qualcomm's operations in Europe.
Behind the buzz is a telecoms industry that has finally brought together the network speed and capacity and the gadgets to make capturing and sharing pictures or video on the run a fun thing to do rather than a tedious and frustrating experience.
Apple's iPhone, first announced two years ago and updated in mid-2008, gave the industry a jolt and still sets a benchmark, although imitators and challengers abound.
Korea's LG Electronics has also struck out with bold designs and models made for capturing and sharing media, and has been marketing features like a single button for publishing video to Google's YouTube for over a year.
Sony Ericsson made headlines at the mobile fair with plans to bring a 12-megapixel camera to market in the second half of this year, and Samsung unveiled an phone with built-in high-definition camcorder.
Components suppliers and carriers are also playing their part -- and everyone hopes to profit from the trend.
Texas Instruments is making what it calls "material" shifts in investments to give higher priority to chip products that make possible the richer multi-media content crucial to drive more mobile social networking.
Movidia, armed with $14 million of venture capital funding, has built a processor that allows users to do sophisticated video post-production on their phones, which it will soon release to phone makers for testing.
Chief Executive Sean Mitchell said in an interview the company had attracted much interest from Japanese and Korean phone makers at the show, and handsets containing such processors could be out in time for Christmas next year.
Mobile carrier Orange, the main brand of France Telecom, is tempting customers with special pricing that offers unlimited access to sites such as Facebook and MySpace -- but meters all other data use.
And of course MySpace itself -- created to sell advertising, not just for fun -- is confident of profiting from new opportunities to sell ads based on features unique to mobile, like knowing where members are, if they choose to opt in.
"That will take you into a whole new realm," DeWolfe said. "We are focused on creating a large, profitable business."