Over the past year or so, rumours have continued to surface concerning the idea of a Facebook phone, a portable handset that will give the user direct mobile access to the popular social network.
The idea is simple – from the comfort of your Facebook phone you’ll be able to upload photos, send messages, and even play games. Of course, none of this is particularly different from the experience available on a standard smartphone with a Facebook app installed.
So how exactly does Facebook hope to develop a phone that it can sell and differentiate the mobile experience from those already available? And more to the point, why?
Facebook’s Mobile Model
Like many dotcom-era businesses, Facebook has an unusual way of making money. It could be argued that the service simply grew too quickly, with revenue generated from advertising going a long way to proving that the service can be profitable. Certainly the unprecedented glee with which users have provided personal information enables a unique approach to advertising – one that Google can only dream of.
But recent figures have indicated that users are becoming increasingly bored by Facebook. Throughout 2011, various news outlets ran stories highlighting an apparent decline in the number of users actively using Facebook. Currently the network lists over 900 million active users, although what constitutes “active” is unclear. Growth continues, but it is greatly reduced, indicating that a saturation point might have been reached.
In addition to the habit of opening Facebook in a browser and spending an hour or more engaged in social networking becoming an experience that many don’t choose to enjoy every day, many still using Facebook are doing so from mobile phones, using apps that don’t display adverts. No ads means no money, and without this income, Facebook looks increasingly fragile – as if the rumours of an inflated share price weren’t enough!
More and more users are also taking time away from Facebook due to concerns with privacy and general issues of trust. As we find more and more companies finding ways to communicate with us with increasingly intrusive methods it is quite understandable that – rightly or wrongly – people will follow this back to companies like Facebook and Google.
Therefore there is already a segment of users who will steer clear of such a device, even if their own phone already has a Facebook app, simply because of this poor reputation.
Tackling the Missing Mobile Money
In order to generate income for their service, advertisers use Facebook to identify their target audience and display promotional messages that users might be interested in. It’s a system that works extremely well in a web browser – less so on a mobile phone.
Mobile users typically use apps to access web services rather than hope that all of the functionality of a website will work in the browser. So no adverts means no money for Facebook from mobile apps.
So what are the options for Mark Zuckerberg and his developers?
- Sell mobile apps: the notion of paid apps is one that many mobile users tend to avoid unless they feel they’re getting special features. Paid apps for popular websites are not generally popular, although by incorporating the facility to run a fully featured Facebook experience, games and all, a paid app might prove popular.
- Buy Zynga, sell games: one of the most popular uses for Facebook is social gaming, Zynga has a long-term arrangement to deliver games exclusively to the social network. Rather than invest in developing software and hardware for a mobile device buying the games house and selling Facebook games as mobile apps – perhaps with some free credit – would be popular.
- Charge membership for advanced features: if a mobile app isn’t expected to have adverts, why not use the tactic that many other app developers employ? Facebook could issue an ad-supported mobile app with the option to upgrade or pay a small membership fee to use an ad-free app.
- Branch out into mobile phones: it doesn’t seem like the most obvious leap from the other options, but this is what Facebook is seriously considering. But what about the competition?
The Facebook Phone vs The Facebook Phones
Since the arrival of Windows Phone in 2010, smartphone platforms have sought to become more and more socially integrated. Android and iOS have both followed Windows Phone’s lead in attempting to embrace Facebook more completely, creating a truly mobile social experience. But isn’t this what the Facebook Phone is all about?
Facebook has been hiring developers and software engineers who were involved with the design of the iPhone in the hope of being able to produce a popular alternative that will appeal to users.
According to the New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg is “worried that if he doesn’t create a mobile phone in the near future… Facebook will simply become an app on other mobile platforms”. Which sort of misses the point, doesn’t it? Facebook is fun to use and has proved useful in reuniting people from all walks of life.
But it isn’t the amazing, all-encompassing social experience that it proclaims itself to be. You can share photos, even video chat and play games along with the usual status updates and chats; yet none of this deserves to be given its own phone when there are plenty of apps (native and third party) that offer these things to mobile users.
Mobile Devices Are “Deeply Social”
This whole Facebook Phone situation is – in my opinion – nonsense, yet another case of someone coming up with an idea and then finding poorly researched data and buzzword statements to present a case, however weak. We see it more and more in politics, but to observe it in a company that has just floated on the stock exchange is fascinating and should certainly be cause for concern among the shareholders.
Facebook’s mobile strategy is, according to them, quite straightforward: “Our mobile strategy is simple: we think every mobile device is better if it is deeply social.”
Call me old fashioned, but you can’t get more social than a device with which you can speak to other people on. Unless the Facebook Phone comes with Star Wars style 3D holographic projections and a small teleporting device for sharing physical items it simply isn’t going to be any more social than Windows Phone, Android or iOS. In which case, the platform will fail – perhaps before it even launches.
What do you think? Will you be buying a Facebook Phone? Do you still use Facebook?