The number of people using their mobile phones to access social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo and keep in constant touch with their friends has rocketed this year, according to new research.
The combination of cheap or unlimited internet access tariffs and handsets which make it simple for people to log onto their favourite sites has created a boom in social networking, the study by Orange found.
The mobile phone company did not even keep count of the number of its customers that were using their phones to access social networking sites a year ago, as there was little interest. By the end of September, however, 640,000 of its UK users were accessing a social networking site every month, clocking up 66m page views and in the company's fourth digital media index it has split social networking out for the first time.
"We are seeing massive numbers of unique users and traffic in social networking and we expect that to continue," said Paul Jevons, Orange UK's director of products, portal and services. "A number of things have come together such as the tariffs and the handsets that really have kickstarted social networking on mobile phones."
Between June 2008 and October 2008, the number of customers accessing mobile networking sites on their Orange mobile phones increased by 277%. Usage among seems to have ballooned after the company launched its Dolphin tariff, which gives unlimited access to social networking sites, and started selling the LG KS360 pre-pay phone, which integrates sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Other operators have made similar moves to make it easy and attractive for people who already use these sites on their computers to do so on their mobile phones. Vodafone offers unlimited Facebook access to customers, while 3 recently launched the INQ1 mobile phone that puts a host of social networking services including music site LastFM within one-touch of users.
Applications which allow users of the iPhone one-touch access to sites such as Facebook and business rival LinkedIn, meanwhile, are some of the most downloaded from iTunes, which has helped its exclusive UK network provider O2 record a massive surge in mobile internet traffic.
Motorola, meanwhile, is understood to be working on a new mobile phone that uses Google's Android operating system and will have a host of social networking services built-in.
A recent report by Leslie Haddon of the LSE's Media and Communications Department said 24% of internet users have visited social networking sites on mobile phones. While that appears low when compared with 43% who check their email, Dr Haddon added it "is still substantial given that social networking sites have been around far less time than the more established uses, such as email".
The Orange Digital Media Index also shows that mobile phone users are becoming increasingly interested in using their phones to search the internet. In part this is because of the increasing take-up of 3G phones - that give relatively fast access - but also because of the increase in web content that is optimized for a mobile phone.
The summer/autumn 2008 index shows that mobile phone searches increased 30% over the previous index and in the past 12 months alone 5m individual search terms have been entered into the mobile search bar. Orange uses Yahoo as its mobile phone search partner and the American internet company has invested considerably in ensuring that when someone searches for something on a mobile phone they get results that are relevant to a mobile phone user, rather than just large web pages which can be very difficult to read or cumbersome to download.
As a result, the company has been gaining some ground over arch-rival Google - most notably ousting the company from T-Mobile's web service earlier in the year.
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