Facebook is still awful at mobile. But at least it's betting the company on it now

By Richard Nieva , written on March 7, 2013

From The News Desk

Last time I was in a conference room at Hacker Way, Facebook unveiled Graph Search – which utterly ignored mobile – and I questioned if the company even had any shred of mobile sensibility in its DNA.

Today the company had an answer. It's just not one anyone was expecting. Rather than simply making mobile more usable, it's decided to give the desktop version an overhaul to make it more mobile-like.

Wait, what? It's counterintuitive, but it might be the only way the company gets out of this mess.

Today, Facebook unveiled a redesign of its News Feed, the most prime real estate in the product. The new version gives users a choice of feeds: You can focus on friends or brands or sports teams you’ve liked. You can also focus on just photos or music. It emphasizes large photos, and in describing it, CEO Mark Zuckerberg name-checked Pinterest more than once.

The thing is, it feels like this kind of change was more of an obligation for the company, instead of a product release that contained any palpable excitement. Facebook isn’t kicking and screaming its way into the mobile era, but it’s not exactly charging in with any type of gusto either. It felt more like a company working itself out of a jam than leading us into a bold new era of computing.

To be clear, this is a step in the right direction. The company said the intention was to bring more of the mobile experience to the Web version, with the less-stated hope that perhaps the Web version won't be such a mess on mobile in the future. The new version even has the familiar gray sidebar from the mobile app running down the left of the screen. It's a bit like newspapers deciding 10 years ago to kill their print versions to save their Web versions, which would have been unthinkable, but might have in retrospect saved the industry.

Zuckerberg shared data that showed about half the content shared by users on the newsfeed since November 2011 are photos and other visual content. “Everyone is walking around with a little camera in their pocket,” he marveled. Many people didn't have to spend $1 billion on Instagram to come to that same conclusion, years after it happened. But better late than never.

What the company still seems to have trouble understanding is that people are also walking around with a little Facebook in their pocket. And that little Facebook is not so great. In fact, it's awful. To base the company’s entire product on its very imperfect mobile design certainly isn't putting its best foot forward. But it's necessary if these two experiences are going to align, because the constraints are greater on mobile, and that's where Facebook is under pressure. It just would have been easier on Facebook if it had a better mobile product at the foundation.

Perhaps the most subtle, but telling, sign of the company’s skewed thinking on mobile was in the way it presented its new product. Zuckerberg signaled Facebook’s new manifestation of a mobile reality by evoking…a newspaper. He likened the different feeds to the different sections of a newspaper. This is not the world's most forward-thinking analogy.

To make the point, Facebook literally created a newspaper: The company dreamed up a broadsheet called The Monterey Daily and mocked up a front page. For a company that prides itself on storytelling – or being the platform on which friends can tell the stories of their lives – it was an odd way to present the narrative of the new, more modern newsfeed. (Interestingly, the original analogy of the newsfeed was an AP-like feed of your life's news. Zuckerberg is apparently the only 20-something who loves the romance of newspapers.)

It will be interesting to see how Graph Search fits into the master plan, assuming the company has one. Facebook tends to roll out changes in layers, with one tweak enabling the functionality of the next tweak. The Facebook Ticker, for instance, begat Timeline and third party app interactions like the Washington Post Social Reader. Its News Feed was essential to it's launch of the platform. But a master plan has been harder to see since it's troubled IPO, which is surprising given the company's insistence that the IPO wouldn't alter it's dogged obsessive focus on the product.

Speaking of investors, they should like this: The more channels for content will certainly create more real estate for ads. Everything on social network – including ads – will get a more robust, visual treatment. But with the desktop and mobile products now headed in the same direction, perhaps it means the company can tighten up and sync its ad strategy better.

[Image courtesy SimonQ錫濛譙]