Apparently, I’m not very cool.
While at SXSW last month, I found myself at dinner with an eclectic group of people whom I had never met before. The entire story is worthy of its own billing in a follow-up column, but essentially a friend had to cancel his trip to Austin and sent a group email to notify everyone he had hoped to connect with. His misfortune was our opportunity; after giving him our best, those of us on the email decided to get together. Random, I know.
At dinner, I was seated next to a woman who is a well-respected social media strategist. We chatted about a dozen odd topics, but when I confided that I’m a huge Facebook fan and power-user, she laughed. Facebook is last year’s news. The kids have moved on.
I suspected as much, and have even written about Facebook’s attempts at diversification in a recent column, referencing a CNET article on teenagers tiring of Facebook in favor of Instagram, SnapChat, and other networks. That prior knowledge didn’t help lessen the sting of firsthand confirmation that I was uncool, though.
So it was with great interest that I watched (perhaps through the lens of newfound skepticism) the Facebook phone announcement last week. I was hopeful I’d see something that would reinforce my belief that Facebook is still in a solid position of relevance. I consider Facebook to be of the “too important to fail” ilk. Plus, I needed to pick myself off the mat. I am cool! You gotta believe me!
Though not a phone, per se, the Facebook “Home” UI is perhaps an even better answer to mobile for the company. The approach allows it to sidestep the challenges of working directly with OEMs (though HTC is launching a phone with Home preinstalled) or “forking” the OS to deliver a custom experience. More important, Home could be the answer Facebook needs to help stem the tide of younger users turning elsewhere for their social fix.
Getting the kids to come back to Facebook could be Home’s biggest feat. I see three ways this could happen:
1) Visual, photo-driven UI with Open Graph App integration. Facebook calls its new home screen, Cover Feed, and delivers full-screen images from a user’s News Feed. This type of free-flowing image exchange between friends has a very Instagram-esque vibe to it. Rather than opening the Instagram app, users are engulfed in a photo-centric experience. Score one for Facebook on this approach.
Extending this beyond images entering News Feed natively from Facebook to images that are shared through Open Graph App connectivity (like Instagram) would open up the possibilities to even richer experiences. The path back to Facebook might be through its own developer community.
2) Integrated messaging. Messaging is at the core of modern mobile experiences. It’s a primary tool through which we connect to one another, and this is especially true for the younger generation (I’m sure email is now passé too with this crowd). In response to this trend, a plethora of communication apps have sprung up: WhatsApp, Kik, GroupMe, and others all deliver a rich texting experience without the associated texting bill (they consume data, but don’t count against a phone’s texting plan).
When this activity becomes a natural expression that is central to the UX, and the user can’t (or doesn’t care to) distinguish between the phone’s native texting capabilities and one delivered via an application, you have something powerful. Adopting Facebook Home will likely mean adopting Facebook Messenger too because of the elegant, and less costly, experience.
3) VOIP phone calls. This may be Home’s killer app. The Facebook Messenger application enables free VOIP calling between users. And just as some users won’t care which application sends and receives text messages, so too would they not likely care how phone calls are placed. If it becomes a natural extension of the user experience to place VOIP calls via Messenger, it could prove disruptive to the current pay-to-play voice plans offered by the major wireless carriers. A cost-conscious younger demographic would readily embrace the ability to place free phone calls, if enough friends were also onboard.
So though Facebook may be losing a bit of its coolness, a slick new UI and an experience that makes connecting to “people-first” seamless might be exactly what the kids are looking for.