Time was once that talking and texting were more than sufficient functionality for a mobile phone.
The fact that mobile phones could keep people connected irrespective of time and place made them the social networking tool.
No more notes left on the fridge, no more answerphone messages or waiting by payphones, the mobile as a primary means of communication was a turning point that increased people’s voracious appetite for instant gratification.
The downside of this is that now everyone has to know what was going on, all of the time. Which is fine, because everyone else is only too happy to broadcast the minutiae of their daily lives from the comfort of a computer.
More erudite than text, more vivid than picture messages, these sites serve as mini-blogs where thoughts, feelings, rants and regaling of tall tales became commonplace.
All the while mobile phones have been missing out, out of step with the explosion of social sites. Up until recently, attempts to take social networking mobile have been little more than a paltry logo in a phone menu serving as a bookmark, with the use of a mobile-optimised site painfully unintuitive to use upon its languid arrival.
Whether these sites actually serve a purpose is moot. People are inextricably linked to them, their Wall acting as a meeting point, their homepage reflecting personality and acting as a virtual pinboard for all their photos, messages and moods. The need to maintain these with more frequency was overwhelming, and only recently has mobile truly stepped up to fill that void.
The shift has only gathered pace now that cutting-edge mobile phone tech has become a mass market commodity. 3G connectivity is now a necessity rather than a luxury, as are full QWERTY keyboards. The fact that Samsung has managed to sell over 9 million units of their Tocco Lite in a mere six months (and 3 million of the Genio Touch in two months) is a stark sign that touch screen phones are no longer the preserve of CEOs and ardent early adopters.
The initial wave of social networking on mobile seemed to embrace the concept of ‘push’, not in the sense of the instant forwarding of mail, but rather in the nature of beaming out alerts and updates with the mobile phone acting as a beacon to the world.
Little more than text windows, these light servings of social media at least enabled access to the core functionality of a site, without the drain that the profusion of images, Farmville updates and sheep throwing usually faced with when logging onto Facebook. Log in, look at the status updates of others, add a new one of your own, log off. Simple.
Despite seeming like the latest bandwagon to jump on, the latest phones have shifted from a push service to one of ‘pull’, drawing information from a variety of social networking hubs to populate a handset full of unique personal information.
Handsets like the Palm Pre, Motorola DEXT and the forthcoming Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 all ‘pull’ data from these sites (once given permission) effortlessly, adding contact names and images to phone numbers, drawing status updates and alerts to present them in full view. The latter two operate on Google’s Android operating system, a platform engineered to make the most of the mobile web. Novel additions like tracks listened to on Last.fm and recent tweets truly add a vibracy and level of interaction with contacts that has never been seen before.
This idea of pulling data from social networking sites has managed to transcend the mobile phone entirely with offerings like Vodafone 360, termed as an internet service that brings phone, email, chat and social network contacts together in one place.
Debuting on their Linux-driven Samsung 360 H1 and 360 M1 phones, Vodafone 360 is designed as being able to exist independently of a particular mobile or manufacturer, acting as a separate entity to keep friends connected (and using data, presumably) on their network.
With plans to serve 360 up as an application for iPhone when the coveted device arrives onto the carrier in early 2010, Vodafone realises that the value and longevity this kind of additional service can extend far beyond shilling a particular handset and in fact become a reason to join their network over another.
Whilst far from a novelty prior to Apple’s device, mobile applications where somewhat of a dark art until the iPhone became an alluring proof of concept for the casual observer, whilst their App Store gave a prominent shop window for these wares to be displayed. Many of these apps piggyback on the fun side of social networking sites, enabling multiple status updates or grouping of content to be done with ease.
Naturally the world’s manufacturers have followed suit, causing dedicated social applications to be created for practically every phone platform, and literally hundreds of third party solutions for micro-blogging and the like.
Sony Ericsson phones like the Yari have Facebook functionality built into the device, enabling a rich and vivid user experience directly from the homepage. A stream of the latest status updates from friends and presented directly onto the home screen, and a single press enables a response, with the ability to add status updates and reply to Inbox messages without missing a beat.
This is the instant gratification users have been clamouring for, that seamless integration of social networking into core functionality, rather than lip service and laggy web apps that do little to enhance the online experience.
The INQ1 from 3 is a revolutionary handset, not only in the degree of connectivity between on- and offline content, pooling of contact information from social networking sites, but also offering instant messaging over Windows Live and VoIP calls over Skype, all in an eminently affordable phone.
Treating social networking and internet connectivity as integral functionality rather than a marketer’s bullet point, the INQ1 was rightly recognised as a landmark device, and put the meagre offerings from many supposedly smart phones to shame.
With the new INQ Mini 3G, they have added support for today’s trending topic – Twitter – whilst giving the phone itself a much needed reboot in the style stakes. The micro-blogging service currently has the pulses racing of the social elite, and it is a natural fit for mobiles to dip into the world of hashtags and retweets.
Having said that, the value of Twitter as a real-time news service cannot be ignored, as breaking events from the Hudson River plane crash to the Balloon Boy saga have been documented in up-to-the-minute 140 character glory on mobiles.
The brevity and constraints of Twitter are enablers to get messages out there with a minimum of fluff, rather than the destroyer of the English language that school professors make it out to be.
The portable nature of a mobile phone combined with the ubiquity and connective tissue of social media sites are finally realising the potential of everyone becoming a news source, first on the scene whether a raging inferno or an underground rave.
Everyone always online regardless of location, with the ability to exchange pictures, jokes and occasionally useful information makes the current age of mobile phone the most exciting since the heady days of extendable aerials and Snake.
Mobile phones have certainly caught up with social networking, and it is up to the sites to pick up the slack. Video streaming, geo-targeting nearby friends Google-Latitude style, multi-player gaming – there is so much more that the medium can offer when unshackled from the constraints of a desktop computer.
When the current crop of networking site adopt the added functionality that a mobile phone can bring, rather than making Facebook a bit more phone-sized, only then might it become essential in our daily lives.