Will There Be A (Successful) iPhone-Only Social Network?

iPhone owners, like users of most Apple products, are a fairly passionate, elitist group of people.

I think an iPhone-only social network, if it had the right features, would be a huge hit with these users. Actually, I think any mobile social network would be a big hit, if it had presence awareness and was able to tell you both where your friends are and what they are up to. And also let you meet new people around you who were open to it.

I wrote about some of the early experiments with mobile social networks last September (see our more recent coverage of LimeJuice as well). The big social networks, of course, aren’t ignoring mobile, either. But even Facebook’s iPhone app is just the desktop version optimized for that phone. It doesn’t leverage the device itself to tell you when friends are close.

The goal here isn’t just to let users see where their friends are and what they are up to. The killer app is to facilitate meeting new people – either for dating (see a picture of everyone around you who’s single and looking, along with their basic bio), or business (see the professional bio and picture of everyone at the cocktail party). Subject to privacy controls, of course.

Once a network has critical mass users will, depending on privacy settings, be able to walk into any gathering and see information on the people in the room. Whoever gets there first will have a far more valuable asset than the existing networks at MySpace and Facebook today. Social networks are about being social. And social implies being around other people. The device they have with them when they’re doing that, and which can enhance those social gatherings, is their mobile phone. The key to doing that is through GPS or cell phone triangulation (which the iPhone now has).

None of the mobile social networks we’ve covered have even come close to establishing a critical mass. The key to winning is getting users on devices that have GPS or triangulation for presence and location, and having software on the phone instead of just accessing it from a website. Getting java apps on phones in Europe is much easier than in the U.S., which is why most of the mobile social network startups are located there.

The iPhone, though, has both. Or rather, soon will have both (the SDK to allow third party apps on the phone may have been delayed). As soon as that SDK is released, look for a flurry of third party applications to try and create a social network on the iPhone.

The front runners will be Facebook and MySpace, who, I assume, will get their users to install software on the phone as quickly as possible and try to add location information for users who choose to share it.

But new startups will try as well. And one way to differentiate themselves may be to offer a social network that is open only to iPhone users, and no one else. The exclusivity factor may be exactly what will draw enough iPhone users to kick start the service.

Fon11 – Giving It A Shot

Berkeley-based Fon11 is one startup that we’re tracking that plans to do this. The service works already through the web browser on the iPhone. In fact, you have to use it from an iPhone – it’s the only way you can register for an account, add friends or do anything else. The website, when accessed from any where but an iPhone, just shows information about the service (note – that isn’t entirely true – you can go to testiphone.com and enter fon11.com/home and see it just like it would appear on the iPhone – but only from the Safari browser).

The service is fairly limited right now to setting presence/status information. They can’t use the iPhone triangulation feature, so they set up a separate service called OpenLandmark to let people set their location information (it works well for places you visit frequently). The service caught the eye of the iPhone team, who made it a Staff Pick earlier this month.

Blackberry has a true GPS and allows third party apps on their phone. And Google’s Android will also do all of this as well. But something tells me that iPhone users might be the first group of people to jump on mobile social networks, and wouldn’t mind letting other iPhone users in the room know they’re part of the cult.

Must-read discussion of this post here.