Text messaging and technology open up new opportunities for matchmaking.
By RYAN KIM
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Daniel Howard was on his break at LensCrafters two months ago when an attractive woman caught his eye.
Naturally, he asked her out for a date.
"I said, 'Wow, you're really cute. Would you like to hang out or meet up?'" recalls Howard, 21, of San Jose, Calif.
The story sounds pretty mundane until you realize Howard was browsing online dating profiles on his cell phone when he came across his future girlfriend, a supermarket courtesy clerk. His invitation was made a few seconds later via text message, setting up a date for that night, the first of many.
For those of you still warming to the idea of online dating, get over it. Mobile dating is the next big leap in online socializing, and it's allowing people like Howard to look for love in literally all the right and wrong places. Even the breakroom at LensCrafters.
A host of companies are betting that just as online dating and matchmaking have gained favor with Internet-savvy singles, so too will mobile dating catch on with a generation increasingly dependent on its cell phones and other handheld devices.
With advances in cell-phone technology and wireless networks, users can browse truncated profiles, view photos of possible dates and exchange cheesy lines via text messaging.
The technology has advanced to the point where a person can turn a cell phone into a sort of homing device to find a date just a short distance away. SmallPlanet (www.smallplanet.net), a mobile social networking company, has come up with a way for its compatible users to be alerted when they are within range of each other, in most cases about 30 feet for now.
"I think people are more comfortable with online dating, and it's generally been accepted," said analyst Brent Iadarola of Frost & amp; Sullivan. "The comfort people have with online dating in the wired world is now translating to the mobile world."
With fewer than 6 million users in the United States, mobile dating is small compared with the estimated 40 million users of traditional computer-based online dating services. But mobile social networking, as it is sometimes called, is expected to grow rapidly, as it has in Europe and Asia, where it is more popular in some countries than online dating services.
Subscription revenue for mobile dating services is expected to rise from $31.4 million this year to $215 million by 2009. That does not include revenue from text-messaging charges, which could double those figures, according to Iadarola.
Industry leaders, who gathered last week in San Francisco for a mobile-dating conference, said the growth is natural as phones become ever more vital components of people's lives, offering more than just the ability to communicate.
"Handset technology has moved in leaps and bounds to the point you can have a good user experience while on the bus or sitting in the back of car," said Mark Brooks, editor of Online Personals Watch. "People are gaming and texting now. It all makes sense at last."
Howard, the 21-year-old San Jose optician, said the service seems more immediate and appeals to his sense of whimsy and his active lifestyle. About the only drawbacks are the small pictures on his phone and the brief but slightly awkward moment when he tells people he met his girlfriend through his cell phone.
"That is kind of different, but I think for my generation it's no big deal," said Howard. "This will be like second nature."
It's people like Howard, young and tech-savvy, who will make up most of the mobile-dating market, industry executives expect. They said cell phones are conducive to more casual dating and flirting. Serious daters looking for their soul mates will likely continue to address their loneliness through their PCs.
"People who want to use their mobile devices are more interested in shorter-term relationships than people who want to use their PC," said Joe Cohen, chief operating officer of Match.com, which has about 250,000 mobile users. "It's more of a flirting or chatting service."
At present, phones still are a step behind computers when it comes to ease of use. But their portability opens up a world of new opportunities.
One promising technology is location-based dating, in which users can be alerted to a potential match just down the street or somewhere in their ZIP code.
"I can go to a club, and the phone becomes a transponder," said Joe Brennan Jr., vice president of Webdate (www.webdate.com), the industry leader with 5 million users. "I can find someone I match up with, and that facilitates a meeting."
But there's a hitch. Wireless carriers haven't embraced Webdate technology for now because they are unconvinced of the safety and manageability of the service. Some fear the technology could be manipulated to electronically harass users.