Story Highlights• New services alert people when potential dates are near
• Prevalent in China, "mobile romance" just starting in the U.S.
• Text-messaging and GPS help make connections
By Grace Wong
Special to CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Online dating is so last year. Now, if you're thinking romance, look to your mobile phone.
Match-making companies are creating new services that allow people to post their dating profile online and then automatically receive a text message on a GPS-enabled phone when a match is nearby, say, at a coffee shop around the corner.
The phenomenon, also known as "mobile romance," already has arrived in China, home to some 430 million mobile phone users. Most Chinese wireless service providers offer dating services to drive text message usage, which in turn creates revenue, according to Liu Bin, an analyst with BDA China Ltd., a Beijing-based telecommunications consulting firm.
Similar services are also cropping up in the United States. Dodgeball, which Google bought last year, alerts people to the locations of their friends and potential dates via text messages on their cell phone.
Socialight, another application for the mobile phone, works more like a tagging service. It lets users create virtual "sticky notes" wherever they are with their cell phone. If you're at a music concert, for instance, you can create a note. Then if your friends approach your location, they're notified on their phone. (A new version of Socialight is under development and the service will be unavailable until that version is launched.)
Dodgeball doesn't use GPS to track its users' locations. Instead, when a user goes to a bar, they "check in" with Dodgeball by sending a text message. Dodgeball then relays their location to the friends in their network, also via a text message.
Daniel Doubrovkine, 30, a heavy Dodgeball user in New York, said he uses the service to connect with friends, not romantic partners.
"It's a convenient way to tell all my friends where I am without bothering them," he said. "I use Dodgeball from work, home, wherever."
Leading online dating site Match.com offers a mobile service that allows members to look for romance on-the-go. They can send text messages to people who match their profile, but there isn't a location-based feature that alerts them when someone is nearby.
Mobile dating is such a new trend that the size of its user base isn't even closely followed. In a survey of online dating users conducted by Jupiter Research, barely a fraction of them said they use mobile platforms in search of romance, according to Nate Elliott, a Jupiter Research analyst.
Elliott thinks the Internet, not GPS-enabled mobile phones, will continue to dominate the hi-tech ways people seek romance in the United States. "For the foreseeable future, mobile's best use is as a channel to drive consumers back to Web sites," he said.
But younger generations more comfortable with newer technologies could change how people connect. The attitude of today's youth toward cell phones and technology is vastly different from that of adults, said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Younger mobile users have moved well beyond voice when it comes to their phones, he said. For instance, more than three in four of them use text messaging (versus one in four adults) and nearly half of them use their phones to instant message.
These so-called "tech natives" have grown up with a variety of different communication methods. "They have more tools at their disposal and aren't intimidated by technology itself," Golvin said.
But for now, some users are skeptical about the ability of services like Dodgeball to spark real romance.
Doubrovkine, the Dodgeball user, said people don't need Dodgeball to find dates. (A feature of the service lets you designate "crushes" online -- they're then alerted to your location when you're nearby.)
"People hook up in bars all the time. You don't need text messaging to do that," he said.