LinkedIn Launches a New Mobile Platform as It Grapples With Customer Service Issues

Users with networks of all sizes report problems conducting searches, doing introductions and accepting invitations to connect on the social networking service

Yesterday, LinkedIn launched a mobile version of its popular networking website that will allow LinkedIn users to access the site's functionality from their wireless devices. The new technology, which is in a public, beta-test mode and is free, comes as the five-year-old social networking site appears to be struggling with growing pains.

Brandon Duncan, LinkedIn's director of engineering, says LinkedIn members can now search for people's profiles, upload photos, receive network updates and send invitations to connect from their BlackBerrys, iPhones and any other Web-enabled wireless phone that uses the wireless application protocol (WAP).

With the new platform, if a LinkedIn user meets someone at a conference, the user doesn't have to wait until he gets back to his laptop in his hotel room to send an invitation to connect, says Duncan. He can send the invitation to his new contact as she's giving him her e-mail address. "This will allow people to make their networks larger in a shorter period of time," says Duncan, who adds that increasing existing LinkedIn member's usage of the site is a business goal for 2008.

But some existing LinkedIn users with extensive networks expressed doubt about the company's ability to launch the mobile platform successfully at a time when LinkedIn may already be having trouble with its existing functionality.

Bill Howell, senior vice president and CIO of medical components manufacturer Accellent, says he doubts that LinkedIn's infrastructure is capable of keeping up with its 19 million members. "I'm confident that they won't provide support for [the new mobile platform to] those of us who make extensive use of LinkedIn," he says. "They aren't able to support large networks of users on their core infrastructure so I doubt they will be able to do it via a mobile platform."

Howell, who has used LinkedIn since 2004, has 20,000 people in his network and pays $500 for a premium subscription to the service. But he has grown increasingly frustrated with LinkedIn thanks to a laundry list of problems, including an inability to access his inbox, make introductions or conduct simple searches.

When he's contacted LinkedIn's customer service about the problems he's experienced, he says he's been told that his network is too large for the company to handle.

"These limitations in size fly in the face of a cultural storm that is underway with the professional and social networks," he says. "Work gets done via networks of people. My address book was 4,000 entries in 1983. These tools are way behind."

Howell says he wonders what size network LinkedIn can handle. And, according to LinkedIn's Duncan, the service is optimized for networks with hundreds of people. The LinkedIn philosophy, he adds, emphasizes the quality of the people inside a member's network rather than the quantity. "We believe that 99 percent of LinkedIn users are going to be people who are looking to optimize the quality of their network," he says. "That said, there are always going to be people on LinkedIn who have 20,000 or 30,000 connections. While we recognize that these people are our most active users and they're paying for features, we have to balance them with the other 99 percent of users."

Duncan notes that there's more to the challenge of supporting millions of members with networks of hundreds and thousands of connections than just storage. Mapping connections and degrees of separation between members is computationally intensive, too, he says.

The problems Howell has experienced, however, aren't isolated to users with thousands of connections. Kerry Duggan, a campaign manager with the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C., has 226 contacts in her network, and says that for a month she couldn't import e-mail addresses from her Gmail account to LinkedIn. She says LinkedIn's import feature is really helpful "when it works," but when it didn't, it wasn't too much of a pain. "I recommended LinkedIn to my brother, a wealth manager, and he's having problems importing from Hotmail, which is unfortunate because in both of our fields, networking is key."

"We don't feel that there's a huge number of problems with our existing functionality," says Duncan. "When we look through our reports to see the number of people accepting and sending invitations, we get the sense that the vast majority of users are having a good experience. That said, we're always going to continue to try to improve the experience for users."

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