Already popular in Europe and Asia, instant mobile messaging is slowly seeping onto the U.S. scene.
By Jane Weaver Health editor
msnbc.com

What does the future hold for people seeking the perfect mate via Web personals? Over the next few years digital daters will be able to connect almost instantly to a potential partner through cell phones or other wireless gadgets, watch video clips or listen to someone describe his hobbies.

Katherine Williams, 27, lives in Oregon but travels frequently to Europe. While on a business trip in London recently she sent a “flirt” message to the cell phones of several people she found through the online personals service SMS.ac. Her short text message showed up on her targets’ cell phones.

“I like the instant part of it,” Williams said. “I’m uncomfortable with other dating sites, but this is more casual. And I know the person got the message right away rather than it just sitting in an e-mail.”

The “flirt” feature is a big money-maker for SMS.ac, said Greg Wilfahrt, executive vice president of the San Diego-based wireless community site which boasts 6 million registered users in 220 countries.

SMS, or text-messaging over cell phones, is slowly arriving in the U.S. after becoming hugely successful in Europe and Japan. With a pay-as-you-go model (people buy credits in order to send messages), the wireless technology company sells its dating service as a speedier way to hook up with potential mates.

“It frees you from the confines of the PC to give an anytime, anywhere connection,” said Wilfahrt.

SMS messages could notify you that an e-mail from a potential love connection is waiting for you, cutting the response time from an average of 24 hours to as little as the time it takes you to answer a phone call.

In Europe, OpenWave, a Redwood City, Calif. wireless technology company, is about to rollout a service called, “DateFinder,” which can be used through cell phones and the Web. The location-technology will allow people to find other members who are within a few miles.

For about 15 cents a message, users could check a profile of someone in the area and start communicating over the phone with text-messages (“Hey, I like people with blue eyes, want to go to a movie?”), said Johan Othelius, vice president of OpenWave.

Not everyone is going to want to receive cell phone text-messages from strangers or track down potential dates a block away, but those types of wireless technology are examples of where the online dating scene is headed in coming years.

Virtual matchmaking has exploded in the last two years with some 18 million people visiting an online dating service in July, according to Media Metrix, an online audience measurement firm.

Today, the online dating market is worth about $59 million, according to Jupiter Research, a research firm focusing on the Internet. Revenues are expected to reach $150 million a year by 2007, Jupiter projects.

Face-to-face in the future 
Web personals have become the new mating ritual for millions of people. But that’s still only a small portion of the singles world in the U.S., and the competition between the scores of dating sites is getting fiercer.

Major sites like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals plan to sweeten the search for love with more sophisticated matching technology and satisfy the need for instant gratification through the use of wireless technology like SMS. Before too long member profiles will be jazzed up with sound and video technology.

For instance MatchNet, the five-year-old site which began as a place for Jewish singles, plans to include Flash animation technology in the next version of its instant message service so people can see each other through a Webcam, said chief technology officer Peter Voutov.

Currently people are limited to e-mail or instant messaging if they want to find someone. Looking ahead, audio clips of people talking about themselves, along with video streaming and video conferencing technology high on the development radar for many of the Web personals sites.

“Online dating is going to evolve with the convergence of various technologies,” said Tim Sullivan, president of Match.com, which is owned by USA Interactive. “We believe video and voice are going to be a big part of our business.”

Video chat rooms which still provide anonymity for members could be popular, but come with some risks.

“We have to be cautious about entering the arena of video chat rooms,” said Paul Galactic, vice president of the Toronto-based Lava Life. “Early adopters of technology tend to be more voyeuristic. People take their clothes off.”

The digital dating future is not all about technology. It’s also about old fashioned, face-to-face hook-ups.

Match.com and Lava Life see sponsored real world events as growth businesses.

Next month Lava Life will host its first “speed dating” party in Toronto for 150 registered members, with plans to bring the regular event to New York early next year, said Peter Housley, chief executive of Toronto-based company. Speed dating is where groups of singles line-up and spend 5 minutes with someone before moving on to the next candidate.

In the next few months Match.com will take its “Match Live” events from New York and San Francisco into 10 cities. Match.com’s paying subscribers ($25 a month) can buy discounted tickets to the monthly parties—where participants go bowling, take sushi-rolling or cooking classes.

“The response has been nothing short of phenomenal,” said Match.com’s Sullivan.

Lava Life’s Housley is bullish on the relatively new friendship category where people don’t have to worry as much about rejection. “Making new friends is an unmet new consumer need,” said Housley. “It’s for people who are new to a city, are lonely and don’t have a network of friends.”

Ultimately, a dating service is only as good and profitable as its search capabilities.

“Search is absolutely critical to whether someone wants to become a subscriber,” said Katie Mitic, general manager for Yahoo! Personals.

Today, searching for profiles on a personals site is about keywords (blond, 20-something) or various criteria (no smoking).

On the horizon, matching technology will “go deeper into the psychology of compatibility that’s beyond surface matching,” said Match.com’s Sullivan. “That’s more important than liking the same music or sports,” he said.

But what’s most interesting about the future of online dating is that it is likely to be the future of dating. Period.

“It will become more normal,” said Dr. Rosenwein, sociology professor at Lehigh University who is studying online relationships. The more people realize that connections made online progress to intimacy more quickly, Rosenwein believes, “then people will become more interested in developing relationships online and will access it more.”

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