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Mobile Romance & Sport

5:00 AM -- Every once in a while we here at Unstrung HQ get a press release that's so comically cover-your-eyes awful we pass it around like copies of Bill Gates' Harvard thesis (never completed, natch). Last week it came from Modtones Inc., touting its "Mobile Mistletoe" wallpaper and ringtones for mobile phones.

From the company that brought you the Incoming Booty Call and DisTones (ringtones for people you hate) comes Mobile Mistletoe. From December 1 through December 31, customers of Cingular, T-Mobile and Sprint can download holiday goodies from Modtones.com.


This includes a wallpaper image of mistletoe that you can download, then "hold the phone over your head or over the head of the person you wish to kiss." Get it? You can also choose from over 60 holiday ringtones, including carols by The Chipmunks, Run DMC, and Larry the Cable Guy -- plus "Oh Hannukah Groove" by the Frank London Big Band.

Modtones may make a fortune off holiday gimmicks like these, who knows. At any rate, the whole market for "mobile social applications" will be taking off soon, and not just among Japanese schoolgirls, if you believe missionaries like Trip Hawkins.

Hawkins, of course, is the founder of Electronic Arts, the world's largest maker of computer and video games, as well as 3DO, a game-playing console company that flamed out in spectacular fashion during the dotcom era. Since 2003 he's been behind Digital Chocolate, a Silicon Valley startup that produces games and other applications for mobile phones (no word on whether he's into Alvin & the Chipmunks). Hawkins can speak at length on the new era of "social computing" we're about to enter; nutshell version is that mobile handhelds are going beyond voice, email, and text messaging to become vehicles of social connection, even intimacy, otherwise missing in our hectic and alienated lives. He sees this development as the natural outgrowth of the Internet revolution.

"Ten years ago there was no instant messaging," Hawkins told me the other day, "and now we've got 30 million people playing fantasy sports, soccer moms using free Yahoo! email, and so on. At Digital Chocolate we're defining a whole new category of software applications to serve this need the public has for mobile, social computing."

The size of this market is virtually unlimited, according to Hawkins: $10 billion annually in 10 years is one figure he tosses out. He uses the Starbucks analogy (how many businesses have been launched in the last 10 years using the Starbucks analogy?): A cup of coffee in itself is worth maybe a buck to the caffeine-needy. Surround that cup with an engaging social context, attractive baristas, a laptop connection and some groovy background tunes, and the same consumer will pay three or four bucks. Thus, social games that create mobile communities of users should be worth more than solitary individual versions.

"The access to a network, a way of feeling connected to other people, is worth an order of magnitude more than pure entertainment that just kills time," says Hawkins.

To a certain degree I buy this argument. Walk into a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon and see all the guys wearing New York Jets jerseys and trying to cure their loneliness by consuming two pints per quarter and bellowing "J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets!" every time the hapless Jets make a tackle or manage to run a play without fumbling. Hawkins' first social-networking game, in fact, is called "Mobile League Sports Network." Basically, it's a league-based trivia and game-prediction competition, complete with a "Trash Talk" feature that allows players to taunt each other. "It's less about gameplay than it is about forming communities," says Hawkins.

So, I guess we can all look forward to a day when the guys in Jets jerseys are bent silently over their mobiles, texting furiously away. With any luck, they won't be using mobile mistletoe, too.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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