Today, social networking site Bebo announced a new partnership program called "Bebo Open Mobile" whose goal is to provide the mobile industry with tools designed to help integrate the site and its services into manufacturers' handsets. At the current time, the Bebo Mobile offering includes three distinct components: Bebo Open Mobile Internet, Bebo Open Mobile Messaging, and the Bebo Open Mobile Development API.

This post has been updated. Scroll to the bottom to see the latest.

Going Mobile: A New Attempt to Grow Bebo

According to the announcement, the Bebo Open Mobile tools are as follows (quote):

  • Bebo Open Mobile Internet
    Bebo delivers partners the ability to rapidly deploy features on the Bebo mobile site including customized navigation, mobile advertising support and enhanced statistics.
  • Bebo Open Mobile Messaging
    The Mobile Messaging toolkit provides scalable and feature rich two-way messaging directly to Bebo Open Mobile partners through the messaging interfaces most used by Bebo members.
  • Bebo Open Mobile Development API
    Bebo also introduces a Mobile Development API toolkit to empower Bebo Open Mobile partners to create innovative applications, widgets and other interfaces to directly serve the Bebo community.
  • The AOL-owned (for now) 50-million* strong social networking site is most popular in the U.K., but is still a distant third worldwide, lagging far behind both Facebook and MySpace. This new initiative to deploy Bebo to mobile phones is clearly an attempt to grow their numbers by adapting their site to today's new computing platform: the mobile web. Sean Kane, global head of mobile for Bebo, confirms this, saying the move is a way to grow the reach of the network. "A rapid and global shift towards mobile social networking consumption is in progress and Bebo is committed to leading the way," he says.

    Bebo Follows Industry Leaders (Again)

    But Bebo is hardly "leading the way" here. Other social networks have been on the mobile web for years and already have offerings that extend beyond mobile-ready web sites to also include custom-built applications for popular handsets like Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and iPhone. In addition, the rise of the mobile web has allowed for even more social networks to spring into existence, such as Brightkite and Loopt, which are both specialized location-based networking services.

    As usual, Bebo isn't leading, but following the industry leaders in the social networking arena. While this move may indeed grow Bebo's numbers somewhat, it's doubtful that it will lead to anything more than the usual game of catch-up for the much smaller service.

    What's Bebo's Niche?

    Bebo, whose web site's design falls somewhere in between the chaotic MySpace and the more structured and trendy Facebook, has historically struggled to define their niche. Case in point: in March of last year, they announced support for both Google's OpenSocial and Facebook's platform - a move that sent a confusing signal since the two platforms were considered competitors.

    Then, like now, Bebo tries to succeed by "doing it all," (or so they think) - delivering a mix of services hand-picked from the leading social networks. What they fail to realize is that each leading network defined itself not by being some sort of homogenous blend, but by establishing a clear niche in which they could dominate. For MySpace, that niche was - and still is - music, the reason for the site's existence and now its continuing relevance. For Facebook, the niche was cleaner, more structured profiles (death to glitter text!) and greater focus on both professional and real-life networking.

    Bebo's Mobile Tools: No Major Breakthroughs

    What Bebo plans to offer in the mobile space will be, like their web site, a bland mix of what Facebook and MySpace already offer. It would have been great to see Bebo do something more innovative - like being the first major social network to incorporate location-based features into their mobile platform. Imagine how great it would have been to see which of your Bebo friends were nearby using the new mobile clients. Considering that the largest portion of Bebo's user base is concentrated in a relatively small part of the globe (the U.K.), an innovative feature like location-based services could have driven adoption of the Bebo platform.

    Also missing from the announcement is any hint that AIM (AOL's instant messaging program) will be integrated into the mobile suite. Perhaps it will be at some point - the announcement hints at future initiatives launched throughout the year - but as of now, there's no mention of it. That also seems like a clear miss given that Bebo's parent company is AOL and the IM service was already added to the main web site in 2008. Perhaps skipping AIM integration is a snub towards AOL, who, as rumor has it, may soon be putting Bebo up for sale.

    In end, today's announcement is just another example of Bebo's continuing game of copycat and not anything that breaks new ground. However, we're sure some of Bebo's core social network users will be glad to hear that real mobile services will finally become available to them.

    * Note: data from comScore via AOL press release

    Update: This just in! We've just heard that there may be a new version of the Bebo social network launching tomorrow. That just may prove us wrong on the whole "lack of innovation" thing. If rumors are true, the new version will address conversation fragmentation and will aggregate all your MySpace & Facebook information into your Bebo profile. Now, that could be interesting!