Facebook’s Year in Mobile: Seeking Ubiquity on Devices, and in Apps Too
Central to the next era in Facebook’s growth, the company’s mobile team took a much more visible role this year with the launch of Places, deals with hundreds of carriers, and a bid to become an integral social layer for mobile experiences the way it is becoming on the web.
The team was just around 20 people at the end of 2009 but it’s since grown and become subdivided into different teams focused on native clients, the mobile platform (the “platmobile” team), partnerships and other stealth projects. The company also poached a capable head of mobile products from Google, Erick Tseng, who had shepherded the search giant’s first branded phone, the Nexus One, from conceptualization to launch in just under a year.
Facebook’s strategy this year could probably be broken down in three ways: 1) universal access to Facebook on all mobile devices 2) ubiquity of the Facebook platform in third-party mobile apps and 3) new features like location that take advantage of the unique capabilities of mobile phones.
Facebook Makes a Platform Play with Single Sign-on and More: Beyond standalone apps, the most important part of Facebook’s strategy is its effort to become embedded into every mobile experience the way it is becoming on the desktop web. A key part of that is single sign-on, which lets people log into Facebook once in an app, not every time they use it. This is the start of helping Facebook understand who uses which mobile apps, which could lead to an interesting social solution for app discovery — a problem plaguing developers.
The company launched fresh SDKs for iOS and Android this year, which make it easy for mobile developers to make calls to the new Graph API.
Facebook needs to successfully migrate with its biggest platform companies onto mobile devices or risk being left out of virtual goods and ad revenue. Zynga, Electronic Arts’ Playfish and Playdom, have been hungry for a way to diversify off the platform, where user acquisition costs have risen after the company crippled viral channels this year. Android and iOS present opportunities to lessen dependence on Facebook. Plus, smartphone market penetration is now large enough that there are seven and eight-digit Farmville-sized audiences to be had.
Reaching Out to the Developing World with ’0′: Unlike smaller companies, which usually wrestle with the build-for-iPhone versus Android decision, Facebook must be accessible to all devices from the lowliest feature phone to the newest generation of Apple devices.
The company’s growth hinges upon it. Facebook went from 250 million to 500 million users in 12 months. But since crossing the half a billion user mark in July, the service has only grown by roughly 75 million users in a significant slowdown, according to InsideFacebook data. That’s because the low-hanging fruit in North America and Western Europe is largely gone. The company needs to be successful in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, where access to mobile broadband often outstrips fixed-line broadband access.
To bring users from developing countries on board, Facebook launched a free, low-bandwidth version of the site called ’0′ in May with more than 50 carriers. Carriers use free access to Facebook to lure subscribers into paying for data plans, while Facebook uses the deals to grow in markets where phones are the primary access point to the web.
Although the company hasn’t released statistics on 0′s growth, Facebook’s fastest-growing markets over the last 12 months include India, the Philippines, Turkey and Indonesia — all countries where 0 was launched. South Korea and Russia, both strategic markets Mark Zuckerberg has mentioned and that the company secured mobile deals in over the past six months, have also more than quadrupled in 2010.
Parity across Android, iOS: The company, which had always prioritized the iPhone since the launch of its first native app two years ago, is now treating Android and iOS like equals. New features for both devices will come out at the same time, instead of iPhone first, Android second. Facebook, like the rest of the mobile developer community, has taken note that Android is surpassing the iPhone in market share with 300,000 device activations a day this month.
Location, Location, Location: It took awhile, but Facebook finally launched location-sharing this fall. Initially, we had heard the product was more forward-thinking and differentiated from other location products. But it was scrapped before the f8 developer conference in April and redesigned around the more conservative and familiar “check-in” paradigm, where users temporarily share their location.
Facebook has emphasized that location is another platform play and is not threatening to companies like Foursquare and Loopt, but it has almost certainly slowed their growth trajectory. The company has not released statistics on Places, but we believe the number of active users is at least 10 times the size of the next largest location-sharing product.
Just three months after Places launched, the company launched local Deals with an easy, self-service way for businesses to offer discounts to Facebook users who check-in. Facebook poached rising star and ad executive Emily White from Google to be senior director of local and run the sales side of the service.
Possibilities for 2011:
That “Facebook Phone”? Facebook has adamantly denied that it is building a phone, but we wouldn’t rule out a partnership with a handset manufacturer to design a deeply social phone. The company risks alienating device makers and partners with a Facebook-branded phone. But the company’s platform strategy is more cornered on mobile devices compared to the web right now.
Think of it this way. If Android and iOS are leading the way among smartphone platforms, Facebook will have to go through two not-entirely-friendly entities to get to the end consumer. For example, if it wanted to extend Credits to mobile apps, it would have problems since Apple’s current terms of service don’t allow for cross-game currencies. Plus, Apple already takes a 30 percent cut of payments processed through its In App Payments API. That said, the open nature of Android leaves opportunities for Facebook even without help from the search giant.
From a product perspective, the iPhone and Android devices are far from where they could be in terms of social features. Your contacts list, for example, could be like a chat list and show whether your friends are busy or available, their last status update or where they last checked in. It would be ranked by who you most often interact with, and if you clicked on a name, it would lead to their profile page and wall with options to message or call them. A single Messages app could consolidate email, SMS and chat like it does on the web.
Maps would automatically overlay friends’ locations. The phone’s camera and video recorder could let you upload directly to Facebook. A photos app would show off a stream of friends’ photos in addition to your own. One of the home screens would be the news feed. Maybe there would be a persistent like button wherever you go in the phone.
A Facebook mobile app store could have personalized rankings with the apps most downloaded or used by friends. You could update your phone number once, and it would be fresh on both Facebook and in your friends’ devices. They could extend the partnership with Skype and offer interesting ways of calling or video-chatting with friends that are logged in. These are all hypothetical, but interesting, possibilities.
Strengthening the Platform Play: Single sign-on is just a start, but Facebook will probably do more to enable the kind of virality the original platform unleashed. Short of having a branded device, Facebook could build ways for users to discover which mobile apps their friends are using — perhaps within the standalone mobile app or on Facebook.com. Places functionality is still somewhat limited as the search and write APIs, which let you pull up nearby places and send check-ins to Facebook, only came out recently. Third-party developers also don’t yet have access to pull Facebook Deals into their location apps, or the ability to create Groups.
An iPad App: Mark Zuckerberg said the company was working on this six months ago, but we have yet to see one almost a year after Apple launched the tablet. We’ve heard prototypes have a substantially different interface than the web and really delve into how the company thinks about the future of interaction on touchscreen devices. (See this essay for how the company thinks about touch interfaces.)
Renewals of the Facebook ’0′ Deals: Many of the ’0′ deals will probably be renewed in some fashion this year while new carriers in other markets will come on-board. We don’t have statistics yet on how the program is faring, but look for them early in the new year.
Advertising in Mobile Apps: This is a long shot, since Zuckerberg and Tseng said in November that the company wasn’t interested in mobile advertising in the short-term. Indeed, banner ads seem like a poor experience for mobile devices, since people use them when they’re on the go and don’t have time to segue into marketer’s website or Page. If the company was going to do brand advertising, it would be hard-pressed to do it in a non-invasive way. Facebook could more deeply integrate local advertising with Deals for Places; maybe there could be more visible options to “like” Places and subscribe to and receive push notifications on nearby deals.
Experimentation with Payments: With near-field communications coming in the Gingerbread update of Android and possibly on the next iPhone, Facebook has an interesting opportunity to experiment with mobile payments. In their spare time, a handful of developers hacked together a product called Presence that lets people “check-in” to real places using an RFID tag. One could imagine equipping local businesses with RFID tags that Facebook users can tap to check in or pay with Credits.