IM presence: mobile and mappable

Just as the rise of instant messaging gave us buddy lists and the concept of presence (i.e. knowing when your IM buddies are online or offline), the rise of mobile-based IM and technologies like GPS are adding location to the mix.

Sprint Nextel in the US is the latest to the mobile 'social mapping' party, signing a deal in July with GPS specialist Loopt to use its technology (which Sprint-affiliated Boost Mobile has been trialing since November last year) to launch a full-on version of the service. The trial alone drew 100,000 customers in its first three months.

Sprint is hardly the first cellco in the US, much less the world, to launch a mobile-based buddy finder. Korea's SK Telecom launched a 'find friends' service way back in 2000, and Japanese carriers like NTT DoCoMo and KDDI have similar offerings. In the US, Verizon Wireless, Vodafone and SK Telecom-owned Helio have all launched similar services in the past year.

What makes the Loopt-powered Sprint service different is its ability to automatically update buddy locations every 15 minutes and plot them out on a map on the phone screen. It also sends the user proximity alerts when their friends are within a specified distance. (If you're wondering about the privacy issues, Loopt says it's all opt-in.)

Significantly, the service also sports a 'geotagging' function that adds mappable location data to cam-phone pictures that can be posted and shared on the Loopt website.

All this for $3.00 a month.

Despite its relatively lengthy history, mobile presence is still a niche market just finding its feet in most places, with GPS only available in a few high-end phones (not counting standalone tracking devices) and IM having only gone mobile in the last 18 months and still suffering from interoperability issues.

But cellcos, IM players and potential advertisers are finding plenty to be optimistic about. Loopt claims that the average user brings in six new customers. All the major IM brands (Google, Yahoo, MSN, AIM) have mapping services on tap, and see mobile presence as a ticket to reach users directly with location-based services and viral advertising.

So do some industry analysts who reckon mobile presence could become the biggest wave since SMS. IDC says that the global market for presence-based services, including IM, is expected to reach up to $23 billion this year.

Meanwhile, IM is only the beginning for mobile geotagging apps, especially as GPS becomes more prevalent in mobile phones, according to Steve Ming Yeow Ng, an associate with DFJ Vinacapital and a founding member of The Digital Movement (a Singapore-based organization seeking to build up a global community of young leaders in Web 2.0 and social media).

For a start, Ng says, cam-phone pics with geotag metadata provided by an embedded GPS chip could be mapped out with apps like Nokia Maps or Google Earth.

Another example is livecasting website Ustream.tv, he adds.

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