Cell Phones That Literally Locate Love

Looking for love in all the wrong places or searching through too many faces online? Soon, your cell phone may help you find dates and mates -- or have them find you -- anytime and anywhere.

Sure, Web-based dating services such as Match.com and eHarmony.com have become the tools of choice for an estimated 40 million online romance-seekers. But in the fast-paced digital age, electronic matchmaking services are already shifting their focus to an even larger market -- cell phone-equipped singles.

"Today, there are more people accessing the Internet worldwide through their cell phone than PCs," says Mike Baker, president of Enpocket, a mobile media company in Boston. "In the U.S., the number of mobile [phone] accounts exceed the number of homes with broadband [high-speed Internet connections]."

And companies such as Enpocket believe that just as Web-savvy singles flocked to online dating, the hundreds of millions of people who depend on their cell phones every day will catch on to mobile matchmaking.

Simply Mobile Matches

Already in Europe and Asia, where mobile phone use far outstrips that of personal computers, mobile dating services are attracting the attention of tens of millions of wandering singles looking for love. Services such as Enpocket's SpeedDater Mobile allow tens of thousands of British users to post and search personal profiles and then anonymously "chat" with others using short text messaging service, or SMS.

Such mobile dating services are slowly making inroads in the United States as well.

Top online dating sites such as Match.com and LavaLife.com offer "mobile" versions of their Web service through almost all of the major cellular services providers in the United States. From their cell phones, Match Mobile and Lavalife Mobile users can search short profiles and text-message each other -- just as if they were online on a computer.

But Andrew Osmak, vice president of corporate development at LavaLife Mobile, says the appeal -- and ultimate success -- of such services will come because date seekers will no longer be tied to their home or office computers.

"A lot of what we do is outside, not sitting at home in front of our PCs," says Osmak. "Our users in mobile service hop on when they want, where they want to fill that immediate need and when they're satisfied, they hop off."

Osmak may think the future of online dating is in cell phones, but for now computer-based dating sites still dominate. Osmak won't disclose exactly how many use the mobile version of LavaLife, except to say they number in the "tens of thousands." Industry analysts estimate that fewer than 6 million people -- 15 percent of the online Web dating population -- in the United States use mobile matchmaking services.

Still, the industry is optimistic. At a recent mobile dating conference in San Francisco, industry analysts said mobile dating services will generate roughly $31.4 million in revenue this year, and they predict that number could jump to $215 million in the next four years. The revenue from mobile dating will jump higher when you add in the amount cellular service providers would rake in from text-messaging and access fees.

Local Loves and Friends

Industry watchers believe mobile phones will increasingly offer new features that will draw in many more harried date seekers. One improvement over Net-based matchmaking in particular is so-called "location-based dating."

Cell phone systems already have a built-in capability of localizing where a particular mobile phone is operating -- say, a particular city neighborhood. But many new phones are adding the ability to pinpoint a phone's exact location using either the Global Positioning Satellite system or other methods.

"Smart" mobile dating systems would be able to use this location information, perhaps, to automatically list only other potential mates who are close by.

Enpocket, which has developed and deployed such location-based mobile dating applications in Russia and India, says such niceties will win over tech-savvy singles.

"When I go to New York and I use my mobile search application, wouldn't it be neat that it populates with results that are local to me because it [the phone] knows where I am without me punching in the zip code?" says Baker.

U.S.-based cellular service carriers are just now rolling out location-based services -- typically to offer cell phone subscribers driving directions and other safety features. But some companies are beginning to experiment with how to use such location information in so-called "mobile social software" applications.

DodgeBall.com in New York City, for example, is a Web site that lets members find their friends using their cell phones' text-messaging system. When subscribers sign up, they also tell the service which other members are their friends or invite non-users to sign up. When a DodgeBall member goes out on the town, they send a short message to the service to tell them where they are -- at a particular trendy bar, for example -- so friends in the area can drop by.

The Creep Factor

While such mobile technology may allow for seamless and spontaneous meetings, many in the industry are taking a very cautious approach about adding such location-based capabilities.

"A very big given in all dating services is that they protect the actual identity and location of a person," says LavaLife's Osmak. "It's one thing to go online and say 'I'm in Toronto,' or 'I'm within 10 miles of your home zip code.' But if a guy knows I'm a block away and I'm the only girl standing, typing away on my cell phone … it enhances the creep factor. We have to look at safety."

With issues like that still not fully resolved, many cellular industry analysts suspect it will take some time before location-based dating becomes a dominant force in the United States.

"Location-based technology perceives some intrusiveness and people will have to decide if they want this type of technology in their lives," says Ken Hyers, a wireless industry analyst at ABI Research. "But I believe it will be so powerful and useful that a lot of people will say, 'I will accept this technology for what it can do.'"

Love and Money

How long that takes, however, is greatly dependent on how soon cellular carriers can add the capabilities into the various wireless networks that blanket the United States.

Hyers says, so far, hype over location-based services has exceeded reality. "Each year we hear about it, they [cellular service providers] say it will be ready in a year."

Still, some such as Enpocket's Baker remain very optimistic that smarter, location-based mobile dating systems will hit the United States soon.

"A lot of young people -- the 18- to 24-year olds, the center of media attention -- are very interested in online dating and not hesitant to spend $20 per month subscribing to such services," says Baker. "And for cellular service operators, this [mobile dating] is a very logical entry point for connecting with those consumers."

In other words, mobile phones will eventually have a place in creating romantic connections as long as there's love -- and money -- in the air.