How Mark Zuckerberg got his pre-IPO groove back

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 4, 2013

From The News Desk

"We think that this is the best version of Facebook there is."

That's what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks of Facebook Home. No qualifiers. No "on mobile." No "so far." Simply the best version of Facebook, period. That enthusiasm -- even as it veers on evangelism -- will likely prove useful in the coming months, as Home is one of the most ambitious projects Facebook has tackled since its IPO.

Facebook has committed to updating Home, its people-centric re-imagination of the smartphone interface, every month. It's building the tool atop one of the world's most fragmented platforms, providing a full-fledged toolkit to manufacturers and carriers that want to implement Home in their smartphones, and, eventually, expanding to tablets as well.

It was the move of a desperate company. But, increasingly, Facebook doesn't look so desperate, with its stock price all but leveling out after the initial post-IPO tumble. And, despite the common perception that Facebook is bad at mobile, the company still ships some of the most popular apps on iOS and Android.

App Annie reported in its February Index that Facebook is among the most popular app publishers on both the App Store and Google's Play Store. Its core product is the most-downloaded app on Android, and both Facebook Messenger and Instagram are popular on iOS and Android. Many people are downloading Facebook's products, and they aren't letting them sit unused, either.

Flurry reports that people spend more time in the Facebook application than any other application -- or, with the exception of games, any other category of application -- on mobile devices, as shown below:


This doesn't just make Facebook one of the most-used applications; in some ways it's also the most-used mobile browser as well. "If we [...] consider the proportion of Facebook app usage that is within their web view (aka browser), then we can assert that Facebook has become the most adopted browser in terms of consumer time spent," Flurry writes in its report.

So far as revenues -- you know, that thing that allows companies to not go belly-up and wither away into oblivion -- go, Facebook may be doing better than many hoped: A study from eMarketer claims that 30 percent of all mobile advertising spend in 2013 will go to the social network. Facebook is expected to bring in $1 billion in mobile ad revenue this year. Last quarter the company impressed Wall Street when it announced that mobile ads, which brought in zero dollars a year ago, now represent 23 percent of the company's income. And, given the prime ad space Home will offer on users' home (and lock, and app) screens, it wouldn't be surprising if that number rose in the future.

But all of that is really just a product of desktop momentum carrying over to mobile, and mobile-first companies still being relatively young. Let's face it: Facebook scraped and hustled to get to 1 billion users on the desktop, building social networking into something much greater than anyone could have imagined several years ago. But it didn't have do much but push something -- anything -- to the App Store to get such a strong adoption of mobile.

Its core application is slow and unstable. Camera is essentially a knockoff of Instagram (which is awkward at best), and Facebook has failed to maintain its Android applications as well as those it ships on iOS for some time. These apps are the most common method of accessing the social network on mobile, however, and it's important to never underestimate the importance of an app with no viable alternatives. 

After a 2012 where Facebook got routinely beat up by Wall Street and Silicon Valley (two ecosystems that rarely agree) for its lackluster mobile mojo, it would be easy for Facebook to point to growing revenues and its dominant downloads and mobile presence as it's "told you so" revenge.

That was long Yahoo's strategy: "We're huge, therefore we have a birthright to remain one of the most valuable Web properties." Rather than innovating, Yahoo spent the bulk of the 2000s trotting out the same tired slide that showed that time spent online was out of whack with dollars spent. Executives and Yahoo bears (people excited about the company, not ferocious purple mammals -- the former actually existed back then) seemed to think sitting back and just waiting for that discrepancy to correct itself was tantamount to a growth strategy. One look at the Yahoo of today shows that it wasn't.

That's what made Facebook's Home announcement so exciting today, not just for people who obsess about Facebook's product, but for those who obsess about its revenues. Facebook clearly telegraphed that its mobile strategy is not simply to coast off its desktop momentum. It's hairy, audacious, uncomfortable, could fail miserably, and seeks to remake our perception of mobile software and mobile advertising all at once. It's the first time we've seen evidence of that rhetoric in the S1 and its aftermath: That Zuckerberg would keep this company focused on product.

Home could absolutely fail in practice. And that's what should be so reassuring about it for anyone who was starting to doubt the company's future.