NewBay Position Paper on Mobile Social Networking

Stephen Farrell, Bill de hOra, {sfarrell,bdehora}, 20081126


As a software and services provider to mobile network operators NewBay see increasing demand for mobile social networking and, in conjuction with our customers, have launched products in this space that are seeing wide scale adoption. Essentially, since social networking is growing, and mobile use is ubiquitious or growing, and with overlapping demographics, we forsee mobile social networking as an area that will generate a plethora of new offerings in the coming years.

This, of course, can create issues for users, technology and service suppliers - both generally (e.g. in terms of portability of contacts), but also creates some issues that are specific to the mobile space. For example, and fairly obviously, the increasingly rich interfaces offered by social networks to standard desktop users cannot be entirely duplicated on mobile devices. More subtly, social networks may in fact become intrusive, if users who are happy to receive rich event streams at their desktop find those event streams an annoyance as they carry their mobile devices during normal day-to-day activities. Equally, the benefits that mobile social netorking can bring in terms of enhanced location awareness and availability need to be balanced with the real, though sometimes less consciously perceived, requirements that users have for personal privacy.

The implication is that mobile social networking must explicitly take account of mobility. This requires:

However, it is, in general, not feasible for the developers or providers of a given social nework to cater for the full range of mobile devices, which is in fact an ever-evolving set. While some social network providers may be able to produce device-specifc client software, this is an onerous task that also partitions the users of that social network into those that have, and those that do not have, a supported device. Such partitioning goes entirely against the goals of social networking and in particular mobile social networking.

There seem to be two ways to approach this problem - one is to try to define a richer set of standard APIs that social network developers can use to develop their mobile applications. However, the timescale for the ubiquitious deployment of such APIs may be quite extended, and over time, APIs may also become outmoded as new devices with new capabilities are produced, for example, multi-touch interaction modes can affect such APIs. Nonetheless, even a very basic set of relevant client APIs could greatly assist in making mobile social networking much more available in terms of device and operator coverage.

The second approach seems to be to actively involve the mobile network operators as intermediaries who are fairly well placed to provide the kind of device functions and event mediation that can result in a relatively rich mobile social networking experience. This, however, requires co-operation between mobile network operators and social network providers that currently involves a number of technical and non-technical hurdles be overcome. Technically, there is a need for some standard interfaces between the social network provider and the mobile-operator-as-intermediary and while there has been some recent progress in some aspects of this (e.g. OAuth was the subject of a recent IETF BoF session at which NewBay presented some ideas for changes that would improve OAuth for mobile users), more remains to be done.

One could envisage the development and standardisation of some common subset of user interactions as seen on the social network to mobile operator interface - while this might not result in the mobile user enjoying the full richness of any particular social network, it could provide a useful level of functionality for users on the wide range of existing handsets supported by the mobile operator in question.

The approach of using an intermediary like a mobile network operator can also work to assist the user who is a member of more than one social network - again, while in the desktop context this can be easily handled by interacting with different windows, that option is often unavailable on mobile devices. If a standard social network to mobile operator interface were defined is should certainly support users who are members of multiple social networks and who will therefore have cross-network preferences (e.g. a preference for seeing event-type-a from social-network-b as highest priority).

Clearly however, the definition of such a social network to mobile operator interface will not address the business issues involved in such partnerships, however, one can envisage that there will, at any given place and time, be a relatively small set of "most popular" social networks which will tend to be supported somehow by most large mobile operators. This interface would however, make it easier for new or less popular social networks to partner with mobile operators and should thus encourage innovation amongst social networks.

The social network to mobile operator interface may also benefit user privacy - for those users that are privacy-sensitive (currently apparently a diminishing number, but that trend may reverse unpredictably), the use of an intermediary may provide an additional control point where the user's preferences can be expressed and enforced on their behalf. For example, one user may prefer that their location be fuzzified when presented to one social network (or other user), but may be willing to share a much more precise location with another user on a second social network. An intermediary provides a useful place in which such privacy-enhancing features may be deployed.

Lastly, while we do advocate the development of a standard interface between social networks and mobile operators, this does not, of course, preclude social network providers from developing their own mobile device-specific solutions and we fully expect that new social networks will continue to distribute specific client technology to, especially high-end, devices. (This may be in conjunction with a mobile operator or independently.) Such developments should not be seen as being in competition with the standard interface proposed here - we believe that this interface will also evolve and its evolution will be driven by innovations that will frequently be first deployed for specific social networks on specific devices.


NewBay propose the following course of action on mobile social networking within W3C (or elsewhere, as appropriate):