Connecting . . .

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Wandering through a foreign airport or strolling down Sixth Avenue to his Manhattan office, Devaraj Southworth is usually staring at his BlackBerry, rapidly tapping out text messages, checking profiles and making international calls.

The 35-year-old Internet marketing executive's eyes are bolted to the phone because of Mig33, a made-for-mobile social network. He logs on several times a day to keep tabs on his friends and invite others to join them. His circle of cronies, he said, "seems to grow by the week."

Mig33 is one of a growing number of social networks designed to be used primarily on wireless devices. Following the success of online communities such as MySpace and Facebook, start-ups like MocoSpace and Groovr are hoping to attract people who now rely on cellphones more than laptops to stay connected with friends.

Larger online social networks have maintained mobile versions of their Web sites for some time and continue to roll out features. Facebook and MySpace both launched scaled-down versions of their sites in 2006 and have since introduced applications tailored specifically for the small screens of mobile phones. Last month, MySpace redesigned its mobile site to let users invite friends, upload photos or change their mood status, directly from their mobile phone. LinkedIn last month launched its first free mobile application and also plans to sell premium subscriptions to the service.

Brandon Lucas, who directs MySpace's mobile initiatives, said he expects about half of the social network's traffic to come from mobile devices over the next few years.

But to date, launching mobile services in the United States has been a much tougher business than it has been in Asia and Europe, where cellphones are many consumers' primary way of accessing the Internet. U.S. consumers have been slower to adopt Internet applications on their cellphones; only 3.9 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers report logging on to a mobile social networking site or blog, according to M:Metrics, a research firm that tracks mobile trends.

One reason such services are adopted more slowly in the United States is that carriers maintain tighter control over what consumers can do with their phones; another is that Web-enabled cellphones have not been as prevalent as laptops and other personal computers.

Still, the founders of Mig33 see potential in the United States. There are more than 250 million U.S. cellphone subscribers, according to an estimate by CTIA, a wireless industry group.

"We've seen MySpace and Facebook going mobile, and we wanted to have a service that was unique because it's strictly for mobile phones," said Mei Lin Ng, a co-founder of Mig33, which recently received $13.5 million in its second round of venture-capital funding.

Mig33 members can chat, check e-mail and share photos for free, as well as send text messages and make Internet-based phone calls for a small fee -- and at a significant discount on standard carrier prices. In many countries, Mig33 sells prepaid calling cards for the transactions. It will soon start selling a few virtual gifts and introduce a "buzz" feature that will alert members when their friends pop onto the network.

The network also allows members access to popular instant messaging programs run by Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google, as well as to private chat rooms. "We noticed people were addicted to text messages, and we wanted to build a platform that would allow people to text and chat more cheaply," Ng said.

But with so many social networks catering to a host of interests and demographics, new services face the potential for consumer fatigue, some say.


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