Even Gameloft can fail, apparently: disconnects Connect

Mobile games giant Gameloft, the one company in the space that seemed immune to failure, apparently shuts down its Gameloft Connect D2C service. Gameloft had started this as a iTunes-style application with all the bells and whistles: it was a downloadable PC application that allowed users to browse Gameloft's catalogue online and bypass bandwidth restrictions (and billing charges) of mobile networks by utilising the computer's bandwidth. Games could be loaded via a PC-handset connection and activated by SMS.

However, now it seems to only signify that direct-to-consumer propositions for mobile games are a tough business. They may have wanted too much: mobile games are a very real business but they seem to be too niche still to justify a full-blown integrated product like this, in particular when it is not a one-stop shop but only provides access to one publisher's catalogue (even if such a good one such as Gameloft's). A real pity that!

Location, location, location: The future of mobile social networks

What a title, huh? Following the hype on the Internet with Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and all the others, social networks started to see traction on mobile, too. Jaiku (acquired by Google) showed the way. Twitter's next move is waiting to happen. Plazes is waiting in the wings. And then there are all the others still flying under the radar (or, in Silicon Valley speak, operating in stealth mode). These would include people like French Mobiluck and German student-come-entrepreneurs from aka-aki. There is also Finnish venture Ironstar Helsinki whose MoiPal combines mobile, social networks and games.

Most of these companies attempt a rather wonderful thing, namely to bring the networks back into the real world by combining it with location-based (or should one better say: location-sensitive) components. Mobiluck scored early successes with a Bluetooth application that scans the immediate vicinity for other users; think Saudi girls quite literally under wraps having the opportunity to contact that OMG guy on the other side of the club... Mobiluck tells us they scored more than 750,000 downloads of their application, and all with the most basic of seed funding and without marketing. Impressive!

Unfortunately, very little is being published about the actual success of these initiatives. Facebook got some coverage over the release of their Blackberry client, Jaiku more or less went silent since the acquisition by Google (probably working hard to integrate with other Google goodies), Mobiluck and aka-aki is in closed betas, MoiPal continues to grow its proposition but doesn't engage in much PR so far either (some coverage here though). Twitter seems to get their heads down and work (a brief evangelizing piece in the Guardian was about it). Plazes holds a "camp" in Berlin later this month to develop its propositions further but doesn't tell us much more either...

On a strategic level, it may be expected that a couple of online and other media players without a footprint in the space might feel inclined to gobble up some of these guys: if Google leads the way (as they do with Jaiku), others may feel compelled to follow. So where's the big thing?

Social networks are about interaction. Facebook started to gain traction because US college students had an opportunity to organize their social lives. In the US, the relative penetration of broadband is high, whilst advanced mobile use may have to catch up with some European (and Asian) countries. However, the links always are somewhere in the real world, and mobile phones offer the opportunity to actually link back to some real-world beacons, a simple yet incredibly powerful one being location (isn't it so much more exciting to liaise with that hot someone if you know that he/she is within a couple of hundred yards from where you are?). Your mobile is always in your pocket (yes, check now), and it carries the inherent possibility to identify your geographical location right now. Simple, huh? However, simplicity requires that speed, ease of use and reliability of the service are a given. They are the match points - next to absolute reach of course.

The integration of currently existing tools, most prominently IM, is a given here, and most of the companies mentioned above provide for integration of MSN Messenger (or Windows Live Messenger as it is now known) already. And this makes a lot of sense as it is a convenient and now incredibly established way of communication between friends. The integration of IM into mobile social networks also promotes the convergence of the Internet as it is (or was?) known and mobile devices. People who use IM are normally always online whenever they are on their computers. Extending it to mobile is quite literally a no-brainer and moreover the easiest gate of entry: it is nothing new to users, and it adds a lot of convenience to mobile users.

Technically, triangulation (using signal strength with base stations) seemed to have been the game initially. However, as this was too tough to do (deep integration with every carrier, and for rather sensitive data), everyone from early leaders (remember ZagMe?) all the way to Jaiku, Twitter, etc relied and relies on the crudest of things, namely SMS. Facebook has a rudimentary WAP site and a rather cool Blackberry app but then? Mobiluck uses a combination: WAP site, web access plus Bluetooth (a downloadable app using the handsets' Bluetooth functionality). This is promising as it utilizes handset-based features, which does away with long-winding negotiations with every carrier and a much easier available dataset of location data. Now, does it also experiment with a deeper integration with everyone's new favourite feature, namely GPS (see here for the latest on the hype)? Let's hope so! And let's also hope that this will be only step 1 of many to make social networks truly social again -- by interacting with real people in real life contexts.