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Disney set to launch mobile 'tween' social network


Matt Hartley

Globe and Mail

May 15, 2008


TORONTO -- Walt Disney Co. wants to take "tween" social networking mobile.

When Disney launches its new Prince Caspian video game for the Nintendo DS today, it will also unveil DGamer, a kid-friendly mobile social network that will allow users to create avatars, chat and share high scores with friends over a WiFi connection.

For Disney, the new social platform adds another pillar to the company's expanding network of digital communities, which also includes Disney Xtreme Digital - a pre-teen version of MySpace - and the Club Penguin site purchased from a trio of Kelowna, B.C.-based developers for $350-million (U.S.) last August.

But DGamer also represents Disney's attempt to bring the experience of console-based digital networks such as Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox Live and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation Network to Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s handheld DS devices.

With more than 70 million DS devices already sold, Disney is hoping to create a social community through the devices that will drive interest in its programs and movies aimed at teens and tweens, such as Hannah Montana and High School Musical.

"This is something that has never been done before so we're really excited about it," said Michelle Liem, a spokeswoman for Disney Interactive Studios.

Although the DS has always supported simple chat functions and allowed players to compete against each other in certain games, the DGamer network will offer more features and will work exclusively through Disney video games and

Sony's handheld PSP device features a similar network, but critics say it has few users and has suffered because of its complexity.

Once perceived as a company that was slow to adapt to technology trends while relying heavily on its past glory, Disney has been "fairly aggressive" in expanding onto the Internet, chief executive officer Robert Iger told analysts in March. Mr. Iger expects online content to generate $1-billion in revenue for Disney this fiscal year.

Disney has taken a number of steps in the past year to try and cement itself at the centre of the preteen social networking world as it competes with the likes of Toronto toy-maker Ganz's WebKinz site.

"Disney has taken an increased interest in ensuring that they are meeting the needs of a very demanding audience ... one that wants to grow up quickly," Yankee Group social networking analyst Jennifer Simpson said.

"Social networks are a way for Disney to ... transition to a bit of an older audience so that Disney name is still top of mind," she said.

DGamer makes sense for Disney since the kids who are using Club Penguin - which has a user base of about 12 million - are the same ones who are growing into fans of Disney's tween properties, said Wedbush Morgan Securities video game analyst Michael Pachter.

"It's the same girls, so there's definitely an opportunity there," he said. "I'm not sure if mechanically it will work or if the kids will care, but I guess we'll find out."

Disney isn't the only company actively attempting to marry social networking to mobile electronics; in just six months, Research In Motion Ltd. has seen more than one million downloads of an application that allows users to access their Facebook profile from a BlackBerry.

"All the major social networks out there are interested in data applications for mobile devices, simply because they are with you at all times," Ms. Simpson said. "The real difficulty is the experience the consumer has is hard to translate."



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