Facebook remains something of an enigma in the mobile space. Its reach is incredible: 680 million people accessed Facebook from mobile devices in December 2012, giving it a user base that all but China Mobile look up to. And these are engaged mobile data users, who access Facebook’s services willingly.
And the company also seems to be doing a good job of monetising its mobile services, which at one point looked like a threat as people switched to its less lucrative mobile properties from its desktop site. By the end of 2012, almost a quarter of its revenue was coming from mobile, indicating not only that it appears to be on top of the monetisation issue, but also that it has plenty of opportunity for growth.
But there is also a feeling that Facebook needs to do something else in mobile to cement its position fully. It has a massive customer base; in the desktop it has a large apps ecosystem; it has a number of services (messaging, photo sharing, etc), which are core to the mobile user experience. With these in place, what could go wrong?
Enter, Facebook Home.
Fortunately, Facebook appears to be taking a pragmatic view to the mobile market. There has been a lot of talk about the company building its own handset. I – among many others – have written at some length about the downsides. So, while there is a “Facebook Phone” of sorts in its new Facebook Home proposition, in the shape of HTC’s First, the company is making available its interface to owners of other devices – and therefore a wider user base.
And while it is planning to take over the look-and-feel of Android devices, it has not gone as far as forking the OS, in the style of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, as some have previously speculated it would. Although Facebook has made no secret of its support of HTML5, it obviously sees the value in remaining in-step with the existing Android ecosystem, and the content and apps that are available already.
But there are a number of question marks over Facebook Home.
Firstly, with the lion’s share of the Facebook user base already using its existing apps, how many of these want to go a step further, and turn their smartphone over to Facebook – a single app and service among the many likely to be used? I don’t know many people who find it difficult to post and share content from the current app; and there is already a fair degree of integration with Android and iOS.
The question is, how many people use Facebook’s existing app, and think: “I wish this could take over my smartphone?”
In addition, at least initially, Facebook Home will only be available to a subset of Facebook’s Android user base, which is already a subset of its mobile community. Undoubtedly it will become more widely available in the future, but even then the company will not be able to deliver the Home experience to its iOS users – let alone those with other (non-Android) smartphones or feature phones.
And then one comes to the issues which are central to Facebook across platforms: advertising and privacy. While Home has been out in the open for less than a week, these issues have already been widely discussed, perhaps reflecting users’ evolving view of the service rather than the new product specifically.
With regard to the former, the company will need to be extremely careful how it plays its hand. Looking at it from one viewpoint, Facebook Home provides it with a whole raft of new ways it can serve ad inventory to consumers. Looking at it from another, Facebook Home provides it with a whole raft of new ways to irk users.
Facebook, as an app, is a fairly clear proposition from an ad viewpoint. You launch it, you see ads in context. But Facebook Home is more than this: it is attempting to take over the user’s interface with their smartphone. Poorly placed or disruptive ads would seriously damage the experience.
Facebook’s privacy position is also an interesting one. By taking over more of the smartphone experience, it will be able to generate a much better overview of how devices are used beyond its own app, which can be used to drive its own product development plans.
But there are already a growing number of consumers who are becoming concerned about the information Facebook has, and what it does with it. A change to the company’s privacy policies usually sparks reams of online debate, indicating that its practices are under scrutiny in a way that might not have been expected a while ago.
And this reflects a conundrum at the heart of Facebook. While it has said (frequently) that its users are the most important thing, it is also a public company with shareholders looking for profit. This places contrasting demands on its operations, and it will be interesting to see how these are handled as Home evolves.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.