Home away from home: The unspoken significance of Facebook's latest showpiece
For the last year or so, Facebook has looked vulnerable on mobile. That's not just because its main smartphone app isn’t all that good – it’s over-crowded, finicky, and a clunky translation of the desktop Web version – or that it was once clueless about how to make money on mobile. It’s also because it has been made vulnerable by the astonishing rise of mobile chat apps around the world.
While Facebook has something like 700 million active monthly mobile users, the collective user counts for mobile messaging apps such as Weixin (China), Line (Japan), KakaoTalk (South Korea), Nimbuzz (India and the Middle East), WhatsApp, Snapchat, Kik, MessageMe, and Viber surpass that number – at least as far as downloads are counted. The problem for Facebook is that many of these apps are also de facto social networks that can steal from Facebook not only the attention of hundreds of millions of users, but also some of the smartest ideas for mobile monetization. Those ideas include one-to-one relationships between brands and consumers, the sale of virtual items, gaming platforms, and the facilitation of digital payments. (And yeah, this is a point I’ve made a lot in the past – again, and again, and again, and again.)
It was starting to seem like these newcomers were the natural winners on mobile, and that Facebook was the old-timer struggling to adapt to a new era. Given that much of the world is coming online for the first time on mobile, Facebook clearly needed to do something.
And that’s why I think yesterday’s announcement of Facebook Home is so significant. While my colleague Richard Nieva argued yesterday that Home is all about messaging, no-one else has pointed out that it’s also a response to these would-be successors. In fact, if Home is any indication of Facebook’s future – and I would wager it is a major one – it would suggest that the social network has reorganized its priorities so that mobile chat is at the top of the pyramid, with status updates and photo uploads coming in close behind.
In Home – essentially a new interface for Android devices that places the social network at the center of the user experience – Facebook has literally backgrounded its once-paramount newsfeed, turning your friends photos and status updates into ever-shifting wallpapers. Meanwhile, Messenger is given top billing in the “action” part of the homescreen, along with a link to all other apps on the OS. (Tellingly, to get Home you have to have the latest version of Messenger.) If you happen to be in the middle of a conversation with someone, Messenger has an even more prominent presence, taking over a small portion of your screen in the form of a “Chat Head,” even if you’re in a completely different app and the conversation is on hold. As a result, Facebook Messenger is essentially “always on” in the new experience, supplanting not only native SMS messages but potentially also a large chunk of email. Just as importantly, it will also dissuade users from ever heading over to the likes of Line or KakaoTalk, which would require them opening up entire new apps just for the purpose of messaging.
With that in mind, it also makes sense that this is happening on Android, the dominant mobile OS for the world outside of the US, and that it is being baked into the $99 HTC First. As Wired’s Mat Honan has pointed out, techies and early adopters are unlikely to download Facebook Home in droves, not least because Mark Zuckerberg said ads will be coming to platform and hence your homescreen. But mainstream Facebook users, especially ones on cheap Android devices with shoddy user interfaces, are likely to be more than happy with the slick design and communications-first approach. To a large extent, these are users in developing markets such as Southeast Asia and India, which, with hundreds of millions of Internet users and many more still to come online, are important battlegrounds for the mobile chat apps that have the potential to steal mindshare from Facebook. In effect, Facebook is offering a simple deal to these consumers: Make Facebook Messenger your number one mobile activity and in exchange we’ll make your phone look beautiful – oh, and by the way, forget about those other guys.
Now it’s time for the likes of Line and KakaoTalk to be on the defensive. As Facebook has proven in the past, the mobile chat apps’ regional dominance may ultimately count for very little. The Internet knows no borders. If we are to pay heed to the lessons of the Web 2.0 era, which showed that social networking is pretty much a zero-sum game, Facebook could very well crush Japan’s Line and Korea’s KakaoTalk just as it has crushed Japan’s Mixi and Korea’s Cyworld.
The key lines from Zuckerberg's presentation yesterday:
"If you look out, maybe five or ten years, when all five billion people who have feature phones are going to have smart phones, we're soon going to be living in a world where the majority of people who have a smart phone – a modern computing device – will have never seen in their lives what you and I call a 'computer.'
So, just think about that for a moment." In other words, Facebook is hoping Home is where the next 1 billion users are.
(Disclosure: I own 15 shares in Facebook.)