Why Carriers Love Social Networks On Mobiles

Though they probably never saw it coming, mobile phone companies have a new secret weapon: social networking. Indeed, thanks to our growing usage of social networks like Facebook as communication tools, more and more people are signing up for mobile data plans, which are far more lucrative than increasingly commoditized voice services. Of course, so far smartphones have gotten most of the attention, but information gathered by at least one handset company makes clear that even budget phones with a focus on web services can facilitate the consumption of large amounts of data.Today, I got my hands on some data collected by INQ Mobile, a handset maker that recognized early on the potential of handsets specifically tailored to match popular web services. The company, which is wholly owned by Hutchison Whampoa, launched a Facebook phone in October of 2008 known as the INQ1. (It plans to soon launch a Twitter phone as well.)

Nearly 65 percent of the INQ1’s customers are using Facebook, according to the company, many of them at least once a day. And nearly 30 percent of INQ1 customers are regularly using email on the device, despite the fact that it’s a non-QWERTY handset, while nearly half of INQ1 owners use Windows Live Messenger once a month. Skype usage is also high, at 19 percent of the INQ1 base.

In Hong Kong, where the INQ1 launched back in March, nearly 50 percent of its owners regularly use data services on a level that is four times higher than the typical 3G user base. Facebook usage is also 3-4 times higher than the average on other 3G devices on the 3 Hong Kong network, the company said.

The success of this little phone illustrates two things. One, you need to build hardware that is web-centric, not the other way around. Most companies graft web access onto the existing hardware; Nokia, for example. Now compare this with the iPhone(s appl), Palm Pre (s palm) and INQ, and you see how it all works.

Two, mobile operators should realize that they’re no good at developing popular applications. Instead of trying to get people to use their services, backing popular and fast-growing web services is the way to go. Sure, they become dumb pipes. So what? They can manage their networks, offer large-scale services and be the all-important billing provider. In doing so, they are only going to help attract more excitement to the mobile platform.

In the meantime, the use of social networks as communication tools will only continue. Like email and instant messaging, Facebook (and soon Twitter) are what we use to stay in touch with our friends, colleagues and family. These little status updates and messages add up to a lot of bandwidth growth. Who said you needed a smartphone to drive data growth?