The latest thing to catch my eye from Big Red is a FaceBook plug-in application that enables users (not just existing Voda subs, either) to send SMS to their FB friends in the UK. It's on a pilot rollout at present.
It's really pretty clever, as it allows you to use the UK operators' PayForIt system to charge to your own non-Vodafone mobile account. So as I use O2 for my personal device, but Voda provides my Facebook interface, charges me money for SMS credits, but gets the cash by using O2 as a billing channel. Given the pricing points, both operators make money, O2 retains my billing relationship, but Voda "owns" my Facebook Mobile user experience.
Clearly, Voda is hoping that the convenience of sending SMS from my PC outweighs the extra cost versus sending them from my phone (I have unused hundreds of SMS in my monthly bundle). The fact that it works when I'm travelling abroad is a very clever option, too, as is the fact that it inserts my real phone number as a "Reply-To" contact.
And it gives Vodafone a fantastic database of people willing to try new Facebook / Social Network mobile comms applications - and presumably a good group to target FaceBook adverts at.
Mind you, it glitched when I tried to install it first, and it doesn't seem to work on Google's new Chrome browser on my PC, but given it was only released last week, that's fair enough. It doesn't populate its phonebook from your friends' profiles (it doesn't have the permissions) so you have to enter them manually. And the fine-print terms and conditions suggest that "you should check these terms each time you use Connect to Friends" which clearly isn't the quickest user experience if you comply... I'm also not allowed to link to it without Vodafone's consent, so you'll have to find it online yourselves.
But you know what? I don't mind that it's a bit flaky initially, or that some of the T's and C's are a bit overenthusiastic. It's a Web 2.0 beta on a PC - it's supposed to be flaky, and you're used to signing your rights away when you agree to use FaceBook in the first place. You can feedback comments on bugs and so forth. It's much better than trying to test it to death for a year, then release it & find something unexpected anyway.
I've also seen an IMS-type FaceBook mashup app demo'd a couple of times, developed by the Fraunhofer FOKUS research centre in Germany. It also hooks in location for a friend-finder type app, an area which seems very buzzy at the moment. There's a demo on YouTube here.
This type of web-centric realism contrasts with the really sniffy looks I got from some telecom old-timers about network applications. When I suggested that the more "purist" IMS-RCS (Rich Client) would be an ideal Web 2.0 plug-in. I got the distinct impression that they thought that FaceBook should plug into IMS via a web service gateway, rather than the other way around. Well, maybe when there's an IMS community of 100m+ regular loyal users, it'll be the planet and FB will be the orbiting satellite, but at the moment the gravitational dynamics are the other way around.
Apparently, the application has been developed "in conjunction with the Value Creation Centre, a Vodafone joint innovation initiative with IBM, and the Vodafone Internet Services division at Vodafone UK" . That's pretty telling to me - if huge organisations like IBM and Voda can be this web2.0-centric, there's no excuses for any of the other old-world telcos to ignore new Mobile/Web realities either.
Combined with other initiatives like the Dell netbook launch last week, it's also another pointer that the mobile industry is finally coming to terms with the PC remaining the central pillar of most developed-world Internet access for the foreseeable future.