Cellphones are becoming devices not only for reaching people you know but for reaching people you don’t know — yet.
Increasingly powerful and Web-enabled, the latest phones can do email, video, music, photo sharing and Web surfing. It was inevitable that popular online services such as “social networking” sites would find a home on cellphones as well.
Though the U.S. was late to the market for sending text messages over cellphones, well behind Europe and Asia, such “texting” has taken off here in recent years. San Diego-based SMS.ac boasts tens of thousands of communities of users who share interests in topics including sports, music and politics over their cellphone screens.
Dating was a natural outgrowth of such communities, says David Friedensohn, chief executive officer of Upoc Networks of New York, which has 40,000 texting communities. “We noticed that a large number of our users were devoted to flirting, dating and meeting people,” he says. In July, Upoc launched its first dating service. Since then it has attracted about 25,000 subscribers, at $4.99 a week, he says. Match.com, one of the largest online dating services, has offered such a service on cellphones since February 2003. Users can upload short profiles of themselves and search for matches by gender, age and geographic location by ZIP Codes, among other criteria. Match mobile users tend to be younger, under 25, than PC users of Match.com, who are usually in their late 20s to late 30s, says a Match.com spokeswoman. The service costs $4.99 a month.
A downside of such services is that, for the moment, their communities are still relatively small compared with those using PCs. Most of those using text on their cellphones — about 75% — are texting with people they know, such as family and friends, according to Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research firm.
One big obstacle for such services is interoperability. Up until just a few years ago, users could send text messages only to subscribers of the same carrier — a big reason for the slow adoption of texting in the U.S. Similarly, only in the past few months are some carriers working out similar arrangements to share text messages with photos among different networks.
Still, promoters of the services say such issues are only temporary as cellphone capabilities improve and users become more comfortable doing more with their phones and less with PCs. Cellphone networkers also enjoy an advantage: They aren’t chained to a computer and Internet hookup. “We don’t really see ourselves as a competitor of online dating services, but more as an add-on,” says Jonathan Ressler, CEO of Zogo, a mobile dating service that started in August. “You can kill idle time on a train or bus, and let people know you’re out on the town looking to meet people.”
Zogo expects users to communicate in a novel way: by voice. Instead of exchanging emails over a number of days, users are connected by a phone call — even within minutes in cases where a user accepts an expression of interest from another user. Zogo makes the calls to the two users. No phone numbers are made public, so users can remain anonymous behind their screen names.
The Zogo service is free as the company builds up its user community. Mr. Ressler expects it eventually will cost $12.99 a month, including 30 minutes of calling. Exceeding those minutes would require an additional $9.99, which comes with 60 more minutes of calling.
Setting up a Zogo account and using it on a cellphone was cumbersome. I thought too many steps were required to do basic functions, such as logging in. On a Motorola RAZR phone using Cingular, the Web service was slow, taking 15 seconds or longer in some instances to load a single page of five profiles. It’s easier to sign up and create your profile on a PC, then switch to your phone when on the move.
On a recent evening out with friends in New York, I “invited” several users to have a conversation. You do this by accessing the Zogo Web site and then scrolling through pages of profiles, which include photos and basics such as height and age as well as a short self-description. When you find an interesting match, you click on “invite.”
An hour passed; no takers. Then at last, a message: “Sparkle has declined your invitation.” But the next morning, another message appeared on the cellphone screen, from one of the users picked out the night before. “Callme wants to talk with you,” it said. Several minutes later, the phone rang, and I was speaking with “Callme,” a 31-year-old bond broker.
She explained that she uses the service mainly for finding parties or other things happening in the city. The advantage of voice over email or texting is that “it’s much easier to tell if someone is lying,” she says. “It gets rid of the B.S. much faster.” She also likes the service because she can communicate with new people without taking the risk of giving out her phone number or email.
Mr. Rossler of Zogo said the mobility factor is about to become greater. Zogo and competitors are rolling out features for cellphones equipped with global positioning systems, which determine location with precision. This way, a user could set up his cellphone so that he receives an alert when other specified users are nearby. Meeting people may never be the same.
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