With the launch of ICQ Universe users are being introduced to a new trend that will certainly create a culture of "you're who you know". This new social network, built on top of a buddy list system where you can browse your friend's friends, and so on can show an entire set of social relations in a map that can potentially cover the entire Earth.
A New Zealand company has launched a new product that, although not reaching the same dimensions of ICQ, can certainly help mobile users keep in touch.
Fonetango is a new product from Kiwi firm SIM Works. Its claim to fame is being the first Subscriber Data Management System that integrates mobile phone backup, social networking and directory services in a single product.
This SDMS enables mobile subscribers to wirelessly back up their phone/SIM contacts to a centralised repository. Once stored in the central repository subscribers can manage their address books through a web/WAP based interface and should the unthinkable happen, have their contacts restored to a new phone.
The client for this service currently runs on the Symbian UIQ platform (Sony Ericsson P800 and P900, Motorola A920), but the client for Symbian Series 60 (Nokia and Sendo) is just about to be released and I was told that Palm OS and Windows Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition and Smartphone are in the roadmap. The documentation also says that SyncML clients should work with this service, but I don't have a configuration for this - yet.
What can you do with Fonetango? I've installed the small client in a Sony Ericsson P800 to find out how it works. You register with the service and a SMS is sent to confirm that the mobile phone you've entered is indeed yours. You can then login and update personal information and download the client.
Configuration of this client is easy: user name, password, option of manual sync or schedule a daily sync.
Main menu options
The functions do not require much explanation. Backup will initiate a full copy of the phone's memory and SIM card contents to the database, while Restore will copy the content from the central repository into the phone's memory and SIM. Very useful for disaster recovery. The Backup and Restore functionality can also be set from the main menu when accessing through the web browser too, and that will force the next synchronisation to perform these actions.
Press the Sync button and the mobile's phone book will be synchronised with the server. I suggest that your first synchronisatio is performed while the phone is connected to a computer, so it can use the faster internet (and cheaper) internet connection from there. In my experience a 500 entries phone book was synchronised in around 3 minutes, while the phone was connected to my computer. Subsequent sync action will only exchange information on modified entries, unless you set the full backup flag.
Once you have the first synchronisation done, I think the overhead for small changes will not be large enough to prevent using the service over GPRS.
You can log into the Fonetango service from any browser, and check the content, update or remove items from the database. From this web interface users can also print or download a CSV file containing all the mobile's phone book.
The main browser screen
You can Confirm a friend's phone number by sending an e-mail to the friend's e-mail address. I think it would be good if the software could recognise the friend's mobile phone number and confirm this via SMS if the friend had only a mobile phone number.
The confirmation e-mail
But the functionality that is really different and exciting is the possibility of having some predefined queries over the database. For example you can click on "Who has my number?" and get a list of persons that has your mobile phone number in their phone book. From this list you can add your friend's number to your own phone book.
Who has my number?
Likewise, you can click on "Who doesn't have my number?" and see a list of friends present in your phone book that do not have your number on their phone book. Of course your friends will have to use the fonetango service to make the results in this query relevant. If you find friends in your phone book that do not have your phone on theirs you can send an update and have your number added to the other party's contact list, pending approval.
There's also a "How popular am I?" query, with a number of stars ranging from 1 to 5, five being a very popular person. I'm told that this number is dependent on the number of contact entries in my own phone book, and how many of them are in the system and have my number on theirs.
I've contacted the developers and asked about privacy. My concern is the possibility of some social engineering gogin through this service, to harvest phone numbers. I've received a reply explaning how it works, and how users can actually create a blacklist to prevent some users retrieving information from the database. Users can also change each phone number in the profile screen to be private or not.
Users in what telcos call "lifestyle" segment, in general young savvy users very into SMS and group activites, will probably enjoy this kind of service that not only provide benefits like phone book management over the web, but makes the social relations based on who knows who visible through the "popular" benchmark. I think a map of relationships would be appealing to groups of users.
SimWork has just released Fonetango (Feb/04) and is working in expanding the service with new features. From what I've seen I'd like to have the option of more clients available, including Windows Mobile Smartphone. I'm betting on the potential popularity of Windows Mobile Smartphone, and I know that Symbian Series 60 has more phones out there than Symbian UIQ due to its "lifestyle" attributes.