Social networks may be nothing new to habitués of the Internet. Several years of competition among Facebook, MySpace and Friendster have generated tens of millions of members.
But now the market is teeming with companies that want to bring the same phenomenon to the cellphone. There are so many "mobile social networking" upstarts, in fact, that when New Media Age magazine in Britain tried to identify the "ones to watch," it ended up naming 10 companies.
Some of those in the thick of battle are resigned to having a lot of company. "If there weren't competitors, there wouldn't be a market," said Dan Harple, founder and chief executive of GyPSii, a mobile social network based in Amsterdam that is a contender. "Maybe there are 30 or more now — in three years, there will be 5 that matter."
The prize, as these start-ups see it, is the 3.3 billion cellphone subscribers, a number that far surpasses the total of Internet users. The advantage over computer-based communities, they believe, is the ability to know where a cellphone is, thanks to global positioning satellites and related technologies.
The market research company Informa Telecoms said in a report last month that about 50 million people, or about 2.3 percent of all mobile users, already use the cellphone for social networking, from chat services to multimedia sharing. The company forecast that the penetration rate would mushroom to at least 12.5 percent in five years.
Most mobile social networks seek to capitalize on location information. The SpaceMe service from GyPSii, for instance, will show users where friends and other members are in real time.
A GyPSii search will show users a map of their environs dotted with photos, videos and information from other members.