Vodafone has jumped into social-networking with a new aggregation service which it will deliver on two handsets from Samsung, the first LiMo phones in the UK.
On Thursday, the mobile operator launched Vodafone 360, a suite of internet services that brings together contacts and content from social networks and internet services in one place.
To coincide with the launch, Samsung is releasing two Vodafone 360 phones, both running Linux Mobile (LiMo), that will arrive before the end of the year. The first handset, the Vodafone 360 H1, will be first LiMo-based phone to reach the UK market.
While the move fits the open-platform strategy Vodafone announced at Mobile World Congress this year, it may also be about control, suggested Ian Fogg, principal analyst at Forrester Research.
"There is clearly enormous activity around building social connectivity into mobile phones," he pointed out, noting that iPhone, Palm, HTC, Nokia, Android and Motorola all offer phones with some form of social-network aggregation. "To do that, you need a degree of flexibility, and some... platforms make it easier than others."
The Google-led Android mobile operating system is an alternative open-source platform, but Fogg noted one possible hitch with that platform for the mobile operator. "The concern for Vodafone is that using Android encourages people to use the Google login. I think Vodafone has focused on a platform that they have a fair degree of control over," he said.
The heart of Vodafone 360 is a universal contact list, Vodafone People, which brings together all of a user's contacts from a selection of social networks and online services. The initial set includes Facebook, Windows Live Messenger and Google Talk, with Twitter and other services to come soon, Vodafone said.
The address book can be used to contact friends, update statuses, and work with a phone's built-in mapping and photographic tools to tag and share places and images. On the H1, this has a 3D interface with colour-coded groups and a music store, and content, including photos, is automatically backed up to the 360 website. The 360 suite works with both PCs and Macs, Vodafone said.
Universal contact lists are becoming increasingly common. Motorola's MotoBlur and HTC's Sense user interfaces both build social networking into Android, and Palm uses it as a key feature of its WebOS.
Vodafone People will not be limited to the LiMo devices; a version of Vodafone People with the Apps store, music and map tools will be pre-installed on some Nokia S60 handsets and available for download on others, the operator said. A more basic combined address book app will be is promised for over 100 other mobile devices.
Vodafone is also using 360 to launch its own app store, for applications built on the JIL platform. The Joint Innovation Lab, JIL, is a collaborative effort between Vodafone, China Mobile, Softbank and Verizon, and has developed its own mobile widget platform. There are not many JIL handsets yet, but the potential market is huge — over a billion users around the world.
JIL aims to be a 'write once, run anywhere' platform, and while JIL applications may not have all the features of applications written for other platforms, they will run on any JIL-compliant phone. Vodafone is using the 360 launch to start a €1m prize fund, with up to €100,000 (£90,000) for the best widget developed in each country where the operator has a presence.
One difference between Vodafone's 360 platform and many of the others currently available to developers is that the operator is opening up elements of its core network to third parties.
Vodafone 360 users are not limited to devices on the Vodafone network, and an iPhone version is planned. Developers will be able to charge for content or offer subscriptions. Vodafone subscribers will pay as part of their phone bill, but the company has not said yet how it will offer that to subscribers on other networks.