Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facebook and the (lack of) mobile imagination

The world is awash in Facebook news, and almost all of it centers on one theme – Facebook’s lack of mobile success. 

Facebook’s rocky IPO?
  All the financial worries revolve around the fact that Facebook is not making money from its exploding mobile user base (the Facebook mobile app is ad-free) and was seemingly not prepared for this huge shift to mobile.

Speculation that Facebook might buy independent browser company Opera?  This is largely about leveraging Opera’s huge mobile browser presence, and gets to the same message as our last post on Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko.  From Rethink Wireless:

The new wave of mobile platforms will increasingly rely on slimline operating systems, with most of the work being done in the HTML5 browser, and content streamed rather than downloaded. This opens the opportunity for web players to seize the reins of the mobile experience and weaken Android and iOS - and also puts browser makers on center stage. Firefox developer Mozilla has already unveiled its cloud OS system, Boot2Gecko, and it would be logical for Facebook to follow suit with a browser partner.
Rumors of a third try at a Facebook phone, including hiring away Apple engineers?  Obvious. Facebook does not want to be just an app on an Apple phone. It wants its own platform. This means building a phone, which is going to be very hard for a company with no hardware experience.

The Facebook phone rumors in particular have generated much skepticism and speculation, with news reports suggesting Facebook could or should buy both Nokia and RIM, among others. GigaOm gave the most lucid summary of all this action:
In many ways, the battle to control the mobile experience is a logical extension of the walled-garden building that both Facebook and more recently Google have been engaged in—that is, an attempt to control almost every interaction with users and thereby convince (or force) them to spend more time within the company’s ecosystem, where more data about them can be harvested. That was the rationale behind the launch of Google+, and it has been Facebook’s primary motivation for virtually everything.
There are a couple questions here.  Is Facebook well positioned to be this kind of company?  And can any company – including Apple – accomplish this in a mobile world of 6 billion phones?

The real question here, however, is … why?  Why didn’t Facebook see their mobile revenue problem coming? Why weren’t they better prepared?

Could it be that Mark Zuckerberg, who is all of 28, is too old?

Yes, that seems a silly question (and people are starting to argue that Facebook will do fine), but it also recognizes how disruptive the shift to mobile is, even for “digital” companies that are experts on the internet. Analyst Eric Jackson says Facebook could fade into irrelevance by 2020 exactly because it is a “second generation” internet company as we enter the “third generation” of mobile.

Maybe we need to wait for kids born after 2007, who grew up swiping at smartphones from the beginning, to solve the mobile revenue puzzle.  Kids like this one that we featured in a post on France Telecom and its OTT efforts:

Or maybe it just means that there is still a window for the people who know mobile best – you know, telecom companies – to make their mark and not concede the playing field to Google, Facebook and all the other OTT challengers.

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