Mobile Phones: The Crucial Platform

Voice remains the killer app, and vendors are vying constantly for users' attention with community building, games and an ever-widening field of accessories.

SAN FRANCISCO—Despite all its new-fangled configurations, fancy ringtones, and creative games, the cell phone—and, by association, the greater wireless IT industry—is really about something much more old-fashioned: simply connecting people with other people, so they can do business, get to know each other, or enjoy entertainment together.

Cell phones and all their trimmings are fast becoming the new wireless tie that binds us all together. Some observers go so far as to call cell phones "social computers." Others believe that cell phones—especially when they break up the quiet of polite company with their often-jarring ringtones—are mostly just plain rude.

The idea of cell phone as social computer was an underlying theme at CTIAs (Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association) Wireless IT and Entertainment 2005 conference at the Moscone Center here.

"Well, its hard to call a cell phone a computer in the traditional sense of the word," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg told Ziff Davis Internet. "Theyre just wireless telephones; theyre configurable, but they cant compute anything. As for their place in the social perspective, Id say theyre more of a catalyst to extend the reach of people to other people, in terms of location and context."

Scientifically, that much is certainly correct. Cell phone-connected communities of all kinds are springing up, catalyzing people in every imaginable kind of special interest. Many of those special interests were in evidence at the CTIA event.

The common bond: A cell phone

Not only are people joining fantasy sports leagues, dating services and online group-centered competitive games in record numbers, theyre also signing up for "wallpaper" and ringtone clubs, camera-phone photography groups, travel-discussion groups, soft-porn groups—you name it, theres probably a company or special-interest group that will fit your personal interests. The common bond: You guessed it—a cell phone.

FunMail Inc., based in Pleasanton, Calif., is an example. FunMail is a cell phone community that stages different kinds of simple contests. One is "Americas Best Mobile Picture," in which members snap camera-phone photos of pets, babies, "cute" girls and boys, cars, and other things. They then e-mail their best ones into FunMail, vote on which of their peers pictures they like best, and win prizes if theyre lucky.

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For $2.99 per month, a subscriber can snap and send as many photos as he or she wants and submit them in for a chance to win prizes. They even get to see a graph showing how their picture ranks in the voting over time. "It a chance to become famous nationwide, or just sit back and be on the panel of deciding judges," a company data sheet said.

"Were aiming at the 16-to-24 demographic," said FunMail executive Jim Campbell, "but were finding a lot of other people outside that range are participating. In October, well be doing a hottest girl and hottest guy photo contest. We expect a pretty high participation level."

Subscribers then have the opportunity to interact with each other, if they choose. "They compare photos, talk about their experiences. A lot of guys are going to want to meet the hottest girl, and vice versa!" Campbell said.

FunMail is certainly the community catalyst there.

AG Interactive, a branch of 99-year-old American Greetings Corp., is currently delivering a lot more than birthday and anniversary e-cards through cell phones.

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A membership with AGI can bring customers such varied mobile phone entertainment as Def Jam Mobile Content (music, videos and poetry), streaming jazz music, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, who appear on your cell phone screen to announce a phone call or text message.

"Our products also include video ringtones, wallpapers, videos, eGreetings and evites—in addition to instant messaging content, like avatars, emoticons, winks, skins, and backgrounds," AGI Senior Vice President and General Manager Bryan Biniak told Ziff Davis Internet.

Next Page: Its still all about communicating with friends and colleagues.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...