By Chris DeGrace

March 4, 2009 – What is the first step every mobile phone user takes when making a call, aside from turning on the phone? More often than not it is accessing their phonebook.

Regardless of the mobile network, device or form of communication, the phonebook is the most common denominator for more than 3 billion subscribers around the world.

Whether you are a London hipster with an iPhone, a business person in Moscow with a slick PDA or a teenager in Africa who just bought an ultra-low-cost handset, your contacts and ultimately the phonebook itself are essential to every mobile connection you make.

The current method of updating a mobile phonebook is painful. Sure, it is easy in the Internet world as vCards integrate and store nicely in Outlook.

However, handset phonebooks are proprietary and do not accept one format across manufacturers. To make things more complicated, cross-operator network interoperability issues also prohibit seamless exchanging of contact information.

Because adding and updating contacts is cumbersome, subscribers will likely only manually do so for important contacts, while other contacts fall by the wayside.

Bottom line for wireless carriers is that without giving subscribers the means to communicate to their social network across multiple mobile channels, revenues and service adoption beyond the base level will become stagnant.

Net effect on carriers
In the past, carriers didn’t think they had control over the phonebook and, therefore, have not spent much time enhancing it. Carriers originally believed phonebooks were device-specific applications under the control of handset manufacturers.

Today, many carriers still don’t realize that they have an advantage over handset manufacturers and social networking services such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn.

These social networks are also coming into the picture with their eye on the phonebook, and some of them have launched their own phonebooks. However, carriers are best positioned to deliver mobile social address books that overcome handset limitations and social networking walled gardens.

While Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn want to keep their users within their walled gardens, mobile subscribers want to gain the maximum social benefit as their social circles cross many different social networking brands.

Put another way, a mobile social network isn’t very social if subscribers can’t exchange contact information with whomever they want, whenever they want or if they have to go to multiple sources – phonebook, Outlook or LinkedIn – to get access to their contacts.

Simply giving users faster connections and smarter mobile phones to access all of these different social networking Web sites is not a winning strategy for carriers because they are removed from the value-chain: they become a pipe provider.

Carriers can avoid the dumb-pipe trap and remain central to the user experience by enhancing the social address book’s benefits,  making it easier for subscribers to share, add and update contact information.

Some carriers are investing millions of dollars in network address book solutions, enabling subscribers to sync their mobile contacts to the network where they can be accessed by other applications or manipulated and sent back down to the handset.

However, the root problem still exists at the point of use: contacts cannot easily be added to the standard phonebook, whether it is people in my closest social circles or a high-school friend whom I have recently reconnected with on LinkedIn.

And even if I get these contacts – with limited information – into the phonebook, how does this information stay up to date?

Mobilizing the social network
The social address book approach solves many of the above problems.

Progressive carriers have launched services that make adding new contacts and staying in touch one-click simple.

The phonebook is usually involved in the first series of clicks every subscriber makes when initiating a phone call, SMS, mobile email or mobile IM chat, and it is therefore the key leverage point for increasing service usage for carriers.

Those carriers that figure out how to streamline contact exchange and management will empower subscribers to keep their lifelong connections.

In turn, subscribers will reward them by making more connections –increasing revenue – and staying put – reducing churn.