With the launch of a new app for feature phones Wednesday, Facebook extended its strategy of casting a wide net to reach all mobile users, wherever they are and whatever device they have. "Smartphones have offered better features for sharing with friends but aren't used by most people around the world," stated a Facebook blog post about the new app, which works on more than 2,500 handsets and across 14 wireless carriers globally.
It may not be for smartphones, but it's a smart move, considering 70% of Facebook's more than 500 million users overall are located outside the U.S. And even though smartphones are spreading rapidly within the U.S., 70% of American mobile users still use feature phones, according to Nielsen.
The new app, created with developer Snaptu, builds on prior Facebook efforts to bring the social network to mobile devices of any kind -- including a text-only version of the service and the 0.Facebook.com mobile site launched last year. The "Zero" site offers a simplified version of Facebook without any data charges. Similarly, users of the new feature phone-tailored app won't incur data charges for the first 90 days.
A look at the list of countries where the app is initially rolling out underscores Facebook's effort to expand the social network via mobile, especially to developing regions. Countries include Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, India, the Dominican Republic and Romania. The impact of Facebook on the political front has already been seen in Tunisia, where it was one of the tools used by protesters to help organize the movement that brought down President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.
Facebook may not be focused on toppling dictators, but it does want to work from the ground up to attract as many adherents as possible before worrying exactly how it's going to monetize its growing mobile audience of more than 200 million. A Facebook user today with a basic phone in India or Romania may eventually upgrade to an Android phone or an iPhone, connecting to Facebook through sophisticated ad-supported apps.
Gartner has predicted that by 2013, the number of smartphones and Web-enabled phones worldwide will exceed 1.82 billion, outstripping 1.78 billion PCs. Certainly, Facebook would like to have a place on each one of those devices by then -- and the company is laying the groundwork toward that goal now.