Gemini: Eyeing Japan’s Mobile Social Networks

More and more companies are looking to get a piece of the mobile social network market that has been growing in Japan, one of the world’s most advanced cellular markets. Mixi, with its mobile-friendly features went public earlier this year, and Rupert Murdoch said today that he would discuss offering a joint service for cell phones with Japan’s Softbank Corp. That’s why mobile messaging startup Gemini Mobile Technologies chose Japan for the launch of its “mobile social network” product called eXplo, which can run the back-end of mobile communities for carriers.

Gemini, which has offices in both Tokyo and San Mateo, says eXplo is powering Softbank’s own 3D mobile community called S! Town that offers chatting, shopping, and other community features via cell phones. Founded in 2001 by Hiroshi Ota, Michael Tso and Scott Driggers, Gemini raised $7.5 million from Ignite Japan/Tokio Marine, Mizuho Bank, and Mitsubishi-UFJ last year, and says it is already profitable from its messaging platform. The company hopes to add even more customers with its new social networking product.

Gemini CTO Michael Tso showed us S! Town at a local starbucks, and the interface is designed like a virtual world where your avatar walks around, chats with friends and shops. It reminded us of a combination of the real-time Habbo Hotel meets Cyworld community. Gemini powers the service and fills all the back-end infrastructure-heavy needs, but Japanese game company Bandai did the design, so Gemini products for U.S. or European carriers would likely look a lot different.

The U.S. definitely isn’t ready for a product like S! Town, given the product’s sophisticated 3D graphics and virtual world-style design. But Tso showed a more basic 2D version of the community product made in the company’s Beijing offices, which might find more success outside of Japan.

Gemini hopes to make money from a combination of licensing fees, and money from ads that are placed throughout the community. Other than carriers, the company could partner with large social networks that are looking to go mobile. If the company already has Softbank as a customer, maybe a MySpace deal, particularly in Japan, is a possiblity.