How Facebook Can Solve Its Mobile Problem: Build a Browser
When it recovers from the cataclysmic clusterfuck that was its IPO, Facebook will gather its team, round up its new friends from Instagram and Glancee, and ask the $100 billion question: What the hell is it going to do about mobile?
The company admitted the mobile shortcoming in its S-1 filing, made a late amendment to emphasize that mobile is even more of a problem than it first pointed out, and is now being sued for quietly adjusting revenue expectations on the eve of the IPO based on the realization that mobile – really! – is a serious fucking problem.
In the time since I wrote about the big shift from Web 2.0 to the Age of Mobile, the discussion around the mobile threat to Facebook's business has gone from murmured dissent to drum-busting cacophony. The company has said that mobile is top priority, but shifting a cumbersome network that was conceived a decade ago, when neither the iPhone or iPad were around, is going to be more than tough. As its underwhelming mobile apps have so far demonstrated, it's difficult to shoe-horn the data-heavy Facebook experience into a small-screen environment.
But all is not lost. Actually, all is just waiting to be found. Facebook can dominate mobile and make loads of money in the process. All it has to do is build the best mobile browser the world has ever seen.
Luckily for Facebook, it can pinch plenty of ideas from some mobile browsers that are already on the market. Specifically, it should look to China, where UCWeb (200 million users and counting) and Dolphin are showing the immense potential of mobile as an interface for the Web. Soon in China, more people will access the Web via mobile than by desktop, so the question of mobile utility is even more important than it has so far been for Facebook. That has resulted in some leading innovation, seen particularly in UCWeb's cloud-powered browser (an idea Amazon later adopted for the Fire's Silk browser) and in Dolphin's voice- and gesture-based browsing technology.
What I'd love to see is a Facebook-driven social browser that combines the best of UCWeb, Dolphin, and Opera Mini. When it comes to mobile, Facebook should forget about making its website a singular destination. Instead, it should take advantage of the browser to effectively distribute its networked content.
I propose that it builds a social browser with five user-facing pages. The first page should be the default homepage: a portal that, like UCWeb and Opera Mini, offers eight thumb-friendly links to key HTML5 sites. On this page, Facebook should show links to its app store, a games platform, and an events room. It should also feature a large microphone icon, which, when tapped, lets users add status updates by voice, with transcription technology converting the updates to text. There should also be a keyboard option attached to this link, in case people want to type their updates.
The remaining four links should be left open for users to add their favorite sites (on my list: Twitter, PandoDaily, New York Times, Reddit). At the top of the page, there should be a search bar that lets people use voice or text to search the Web, their friends, and all their cloud data, perhaps using something like Cloudmagic.
Next, Facebook should steal UCWeb's pull-down curtain idea. This would sit on top of the homepage and could be pulled down to reveal links to all the HTML5 apps a user has "installed". Just as in UCWeb's browser, the apps should be arranged in categories for ease of browsing. That approach is much more intuitive than the current iOS and Android options of flicking through your screens until you finally find that app you downloaded three months ago.
So, what of Facebook's famous newsfeed? Well, you should be able to access that with a simple side-swipe from the portal page. The newsfeed could be a stripped-back, mostly text-based version of the desktop version, and you should be able to use voice commands to add comments on status updates or shared stories. Another side-swipe could then take you into Facebook photos, which could just be a tweaked version of what Instagram is today. One more swipe would get you to Facebook videos, which could look like Viddy or Socialcam.
There should be other features for the mobile browser that don't yet exist. We should be able to do anything with voice transcription technology, such as add comments, send messages, do status updates, or search for friends. And the "Like" action should be completely gesture-based. So, instead of tapping on an up-thumb, we should just be able to double-tap to "Like" a particular item we approve of, whether it be in the feeds for news, photos, or videos, or anywhere on the Web. If we want to share a piece of content, we should be able to just draw a simple circle over the thing we want to send to our network.
As ever, monetizing the social browser would be the biggest challenge, but this would open up so many more revenue opportunities than currently exist for Facebook in mobile. For a start, the browser would turn Facebook into the HTML5 mobile app platform. That advantage might be small initially, but one day the native app ecosystem hosted by iOS and Android is going to break.
There are already too many apps, which require constant updating and balkanize our data, and piling more apps onto our devices is going to become untenable. As Marc Andreessen (disclosure alarm! He's an investor in PandoDaily) has suggested, native apps are a "temporary step along the way toward the full mobile Web." Today, we might not have fast enough wireless connectivity with wide enough coverage, but tomorrow – or perhaps the day after – we just might have. And when that day comes, a mobile browser-cum-platform like this will make iOS and Android obsolete.
By separating their photos, videos, and newsfeeds into separate rooms, Facebook could also have the opportunity to integrate subtle – and highly targeted – ads into the experience without pissing off too many users. And if it can figure out a way to get push notifications to work via HTML5, it can use location and personal data to send out offers, discounts, and promotions for its brand partners (that's icky, I know).
The world still needs a kick-ass mobile browser. We already need to be thinking of a mobile life beyond native apps – and even, perhaps, beyond iOS and Android. Just as importantly, we need a mobile browser that is social.
No-one is better placed to create such a browser than Facebook. And no-one needs it more.