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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Socializing the mobile address book: market overview and trends

[2010 might be the year when the mobile address book will become social. Guest blogger Florent Stroppa analyses the market of social address book services, the main actors and the trends.]

For years, mobile network operators have invested billions of dollars in networks, subsidized phones and targeted marketing campaigns. Yet they have neglected one of the most used applications on the mobile phone: the address book.

Recent events such as the launch of the INQ1 phone by 3, the acquisition of Zyb by Vodafone and the acquisition Cellity by Nokia, seem to prove that operators are finally beginning to appreciate the importance of the address book.  The boring address book is about to be rebooted with social address book services.

So, what is a social address book service and why are contacts so important? Who are the market players and why is this all happening now?

Behind the social address book Network-based address book services are not really new. Back in 2004, Orange UK launched a network address book with Voxmobili allowing mobile synchronization of contacts and calendar events with a Web-based service. While initially a niche market, those services are now widely deployed and most of the Tier-1 operators provide a mobile synchronization or backup service. Those solutions are usually based on the OMA DS SyncML protocol and are integrated within the mobile operator infrastructure.

social addressbook

A social address book (SAB) is an online service which allows end-users to save their mobile contacts, synchronize them and link them up with their social network profiles. The contacts are no longer static, as they display presence, location and status updates. A social address book is usually coupled with a new mobile address book application, a type of ‘phonebook 2.0‘ which similarly transforms static contacts into a Skype-like buddy list. The company I worked for, Voxmobili (recently acquired by OnMobile), developed last year a product called (simply) Phonebook 2.0, and which happens to be one of the Google ADC 1 finalists.

Why is the mobile address book so important? Along with the other core applications like the idle screen, the dialer, the call logs or the inbox, the mobile address book is one of the most frequently used applications on the phone. The address book is:

  1. The central enabler of voice and messaging. In a previous article, The Mechanics behind the Mobile User Interface, Andreas Constantinou clearly presented the place of the address book in user’s journey, where most calls are initiated from the address book.

  2. The ultimate retention tool. The mobile address book is the most precious vault of people’s life-long connections and relationships. While it is relatively easy to build an internet address book from email messages, it is much more difficult to retrieve a mobile address book in case of phone loss. The social address book service ensures that contact information follows the mobile subscribers, not the SIM cards or handsets. T-Mobile US with the MyFaves and Contacts service has executed this strategy amazingly well.

  3. At the heart of customer relationship. New mobile players such as Apple and Google are taking a piece of customer relationship from the operators. By integrating Facebook, Linkedin, GTalk and MSN into the address book, the operators have the opportunity to be back at the center of customer’s attention.

Who are involved in this new market? The social address book landscape is one of the most fascinating in the industry as all the major players seem to be involved: mobile operators, handset manufacturers, internet giants, white-label solution providers and Silicon Valley start-ups:

  1. Mobile operators: 3 was the first operator to launch a phonebook 2.0 application with the INQ 1 phone. They will not remain alone very long. A video leaked on Techcrunch UK about a service called People that Vodafone is about to launch.

  2. Internet giants: Google and Microsoft have also launched synchronization services with Google Sync and MyPhone. Those services started from their webmail services, they introduced a while ago presence and lately synchronization of those contacts. Google also added location with Google Latitude and launched (quite silently) Google Profile. As usual, Google is launching services which are not initially completely integrated but we can already see where they are going.

  3. Internet service provider: Comcast acquired Plaxo last year. They are now putting a social address book in the center of their online services.

  4. Handset manufacturers: Apple has developed its own MobileMe service. Some rumors talk about a possible social networking app within iTunes. In turn, Nokia launched OVI Contacts and acquired cellity. They are also launching a quite impressive Maemo-based phone, the N900, with Lifecasting. HTC has launched a phonebook 2.0 integrated to the Hero, while Palm provides the Synergy service which links all contacts in a single view on its Pre device.

  5. B2C start-ups: Many start-ups like Skydeck are in this space. We can find mature ones like Plaxo and smaller ones like ZYB and cellity. Most of them have already been acquired. Given the big players involved, I doubt there will manage to grow significantly their user base if they remain independent.

  6. White-label network address book providers [updated]: Here we can find Colibria, Critical Path , Funambol , FusionOne and OnMobile . FusionOne powers the Verizon service, Funambol provides the Earthlink and AOL solutions while OnMobile is behind the Orange , Telstra , T-Mobile and Turkcell services.

Apart from those actors, the mobile industry has started several new standards initiatives. The OMA is working on the CAB (Converged Address Book) specification and the GSMA has released the RCS (Rich Communication Suite) specification. RCS is now a live commercial service in South Korea with KT, LG Telecom and SK Telecom providing an interoperable service.

Why is this happening now? The success of Facebook and Skype has shown that people-centric services are highly in demand by end-users. The idea of transforming a static list of phone numbers into a convenient view of relationships has become natural.

Technology is another important factor. The synchronization protocols (SyncML or Exchange Active Sync) are mature and widely deployed while mobile platforms are much more open. For instance, on Android, all applications are created equal which means that any developer can create their own flavor of address book. The Internet platform is also more open than ever: social networking sites, Webmail and even Skype provide rich API allowing an easy integration.

Who will own the address book? There is no simple answer. There will be competitions and “coopetitions” between operators, handset manufacturers, social networking sites and webmail providers to control it. Some handset manufacturers and small operators won’t even try to enter this game, while some others will play an important role. I believe that in the long run, this service will benefit the end-users. They will still own their data, they will enjoy a much simpler communication experience, they will never lose their life-long connections and they will be able to use their contacts across multiple devices and multiple applications.

Looking forward to your comments.

– Florent

[Florent Stroppa is Product Director at OnMobile, the largest mobile VAS provider in India. He previously worked as Director of Product Management at Voxmobili, a Paris-based company specialized in social address books and synchronization solutions for mobile operators.]


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