Pioneer online social network Friendster announced a mobile web version last week. Friendster essentially invented the modern online social network as a web of interlinked friend profiles back in 2002. It was the biggest social network for a couple of years, seemed destined for greatness and even rejected a 30 million dollar buyout offer from Google. In the end though Friendster flamed out, done in by scalability problems, management bungling and lack of innovation. It's an interesting story, Inc. Magazine has a piece that covers the history in detail and includes an interview with founder Jonathan Abrams.
Although Friendster has almost no user base in the US anymore, it's very popular in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore with 85% of the site's visitors coming from those 4 countries and less than 3% from the US, according to Alexa.
Friendster has an SMS based mobile application running on a couple of Philippine carriers but is late in coming to the mobile web. The mobile version, FriendsterToGo, is launching long after rivals MySpace (review), Facebook, Vox and Live Spaces (review) introduced mobile web versions. Unlike those other services which automatically create a mobile version of every user's profile, Friendster requires each user to add a widget in order to mobilize their profile. Considering that the countries where Friendster is popular have a very high ratio of mobile phones to PC Internet users, 9 to 1 in the case of the Philippines you'd think that Friendster would have made the mobile option universal across the user base.
I set out to try the service using just a mobile phone. According to the press release the mobile url is http://www.friendstertogo.com . When I went there with Opera Mini, I got a non-mobile page about the mobile widget, the same thing happened using the N95's Webkit browser. The full Friendster site is pretty usable in both Opera Mini and WebKit but redirecting from a mobile specific URL to a non mobile one is not user friendly. The user entered a url that's supposed to be for a mobile site - and gets something else entirely.
The way Friendster is doing mobile browser detection and redirection is completely backwards. There is no browser detection on Friendster.com, if you go there with a mobile you will be served the PC version. Browser detection and content adaption should be used on a site's main url, friendster.com in this case. The idea is to enhance your site's discoverability by making the main url usable from any browser, including mobile ones. On the other hand, a url like FriendsterToGo which is advertised as the location of a mobile site, should never redirect to a non-mobile page. Friendster is redirecting unrecognized mobile browsers, including at least 2 popular ones, away from the mobile content back to the PC site, which has to be frustrating for users who go to the trouble of typing the recommended mobile url on their phones.
Using the Openwave browser on a Motorola i855 I finally got to the mobile-friendly login page. I didn't have a Friendster account yet so I clicked the "Register" link on that page which again took me to a page that was too large for the phone to handle. Determined to use FriendsterToGo without a PC, I went back to Opera Mini, registered on the full site and added the mobile widget. Now that I had an account, I returned to the Openwave browser and tried logging in at FriendsterToGo.com. It didn't work,displaying
You don't have permission to access /widget-login.php on this server.
Apache/1.3.33 Server at www.Friendster.com Port80".
I am able to load the mobile widget using various mobile emulators on my PC, just not from the phone. Friendster is blocking users on the Nextel network, probably inadvertently. I've reported the issue to Friendster but have only gotten useless canned responses.. Has anyone gotten this to work on other carriers?
The mobile plugin's features are fairly limited. You can set you status, view (but not edit) your profile and photos, view friends' status, profiles and photos and exchange messages with them.
At this point FriendsterToGo is late to market and has too few features and too many usability issues to be a compelling way to keep up with your Friendster network. This too little, too late approach to mobile seems like yet another missed opportunity for Friendster, but one that could be quickly turned around. Friendster's first priority should be fixing FriendsterToGo's redirection issues. I'd like to see some more features, including a way to search for other user's profiles, the ability to update profiles from the mobile and to sign up for Friendster using only the phone browser. There is clearly a demand for mobile access to social networking sites. MySpace Mobile had 3.7 million US vistors in June, Facebook 2 million according to mTrends. With some tweaks to FriendsterToGo it should perform well too.
FriendsterToGo.Com (cHtml) Content: Usability:
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