Facebook takes its leadership mantle seriously. Instead of merely coming out with a new iPad app, it changed in ways that will long cement its role as the most important suite of mobile sites and applications in the world.
Lofty claims? Perhaps. But they’re warranted.
Consider Facebook’s 350 million mobile users. Facebook surely hasn’t gotten there by offering the best mobile experience to date. Beyond some of its apps being half-baked, not all mobile devices make it easy to use Facebook’s mobile services. Facebook didn’t have to be the best; it just had to meet enough of its users’ needs. 350 million people don’t voluntarily do something that makes them miserable (though a few million people do somehow keep rooting for the Mets).
Consider how Facebook keeps its app users within its own environment. If a friend posts this column on Facebook and you tap the link from a mobile device, you’ll be able to read the full column on MediaPost while remaining within Facebook’s mobile app. Others have done this, including some Twitter clients. It matters far more on Facebook, though, not just because of the reach but because Facebook has always owned its own mobile experiences.
Consider how Facebook now directs its app users to other apps, as long as they tap into Facebook. This is the most significant mobile update Facebook has announced this week, and perhaps ever. Let’s look at it metaphorically: Mr. Zuckee is the most popular ice cream man in the neighborhood and has more kids lining up at his truck than he knows what to do with. To corner the market, he lets all the other ice cream shops in town accept Mr. Zuckee loyalty cards, but in return he gets the shops’ customer lists. That’s what has been happening all along since Facebook Connect launched. Now, with the new updates, Mr. Zuckee says that as a perk for being in the Zuckee network, he’ll drive kids to any other Zuckee affiliate. In more literal terms, Facebook will send its own app users to other apps on their devices, and will even direct people to those apps’ iTunes Store download pages.
All of this makes Facebook function more like an operating system than a publisher. It doesn’t control the whole experience yet. For instance, there are limits to how Facebook Credits can be used, largely to stay within the bounds of Apple’s policies. But Facebook now cements itself as the best portal on any mobile or portable device.
It’s very different than the portals we used to know. though. The old Web portals used to be about delivering news, sports, and weather, with a side dish of email. Facebook is instead focused on delivering links and updates from friends, content from brand pages that users opt into, and quick access to their favorite apps, with a side dish of instant communication. Perhaps the weather and a few sports scores will be thrown in over time.
What’s also fascinating is how different these announcements are from what happened at f8 in late September. There, to much fanfare, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the Timeline, a revamped profile page customizable with more multimedia and actions. Yet the Timeline has one massive flaw: It doesn’t work well on mobile devices. It’s a two-column format with rich images and a modular layout. Mobile profiles, however, default to a linear, more rigid format.
Zuckerberg seems to know the future of Facebook is all about mobile usage. Along with the new apps, Facebook is enriching everything it can at its mobile site, m.facebook.com. In time, the mobile experience will be the focal point of Facebook, and this may well have been the last f8 to not issue important mobile announcements. In time, the PC-based site will be where people go to tinker with their profiles and where brand managers administer pages, but for most people, Facebook will be an overwhelmingly mobile experience.
Here are Timeline updates I’d love to see from Mark Zuckerberg. “September 22, 2011: announced Facebook’s Timeline.” “October 10, 2011: effectively killed off Facebook’s Timeline.” Sometimes even those making the future happen to get blindsided by it.