Microsoft Experiments With Mobile Social Networking

The service lets mobile phone users exchange instant messages, find out each other's locations, and share photos.



Microsoft is testing social networking software that would enable mobile phone subscribers to send instant messages, pinpoint each other's location and share photos.

In developing SLAM, the Microsoft Research Community Technologies Group hopes to provide an easier way for people to communicate with family and friends. The software is available for download at no charge.

An easier method for social networking on a cellular phone could be attractive to adults from 18 to 26, who, according to Forrester Research, are the biggest users of data services. So-called Generation Yers have been most successful in integrating the phone into their lifestyles.

SLAM, which stands for Social, Location, Annotation, Mobile, lets people blast messages and photos to fellow members in a group. For people with the SLAM client installed, their smart phones will buzz, and an indicator on the phone's home screen will show that there's a new message. The application supports any Windows Mobile smart phone.

The software client can also show a map that marks the locations of everyone in a group. The SLAM server, which is hosted by Microsoft, generates the map using MSN's Virtual Earth, the software maker's satellite mapping service. People's locations are known because the software client periodically tells the server where it is.

The feature does not require a GPS, or global positioning system, device. SLAM determines location based on the cellular towers the phone detects.

To prevent privacy invasion, people can hide their location, or set who can see where they are and when. The location service, however, is on by default, and has to be disabled by the user.

Once installed, SLAM by default will run in the background when people turn on their phones. Users can choose not to have the service run automatically.

Because SLAM uses a cellular network's data pipe to send and receive messages, Microsoft warns potential users that they need an unlimited data plan to avoid a phone bill that could reach as high as $600 a month or more.

The SLAM user interface by default shows the four groups with the most recent activity as thumbnails of the most recent pictures sent. People can also choose the groups that show up as thumbnails and access a list of all their groups.

Users can form private or public groups, which means people can join the latter by simply clicking "join" on the UI. People can also search public groups by interest.

In creating groups, people first enter a name and description, and choose who they want to join by entering their phone numbers, selecting numbers from the phone's address book, or choosing members from existing groups.

For security purposes, Microsoft does not allow users to register more than one phone number and access the same account content from the separate phones.

The use of data services on mobile phones has been slow to take off in general, except among young adults. Fully, 45 percent of Gen Yers who have mobile phones use data services, led by text messaging, ring tones and games.

Nevertheless, that could change as the number of people with smart phones capable of advanced data services like SLAM increases. Global smart-phone shipments soared by 75.5 percent in the first half of the year to 34.7 million units, with Japan the largest market, Gartner said. Driving sales was consumers' desire for a fashionable device, and advances in messaging and personal information management software.

Smart phone shipments, however, still account for a small percentage of the hundreds of millions of mobile phones shipped each year. Worldwide shipments of phones last year totaled 825.5 million units, according to International Data Corp.

Microsoft is not alone in providing social-networking capabilities for mobile phones. Such functionality is also offered in services from Google, Yahoo, AOL and others.

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