Facebook has more than one mobile problem

Following Facebook’s historic S-1 filling in ramp up to its eventual IPO, GigaOM’s Kevin Fitchard wrote a great piece detailing what he calls Facebook’s kryptonite, namely, that “Facebook’s future growth is being driven by user behavior that it has so far failed to monetize.” As Kevin notes, 425 million of Facebook’s 845 million monthly active users access the site through a smartphone, feature phone app, or mobile-optimized website. However, 85 percent of Facebook’s $3.7 billion in revenues comes from advertising, and the company (currently) does not serve mobile ads.

Facebook is aware of how much money it’s leaving on the table, having noted such in its S-1 filing. Facebook is also aware of how important mobile is to its future. At the Mobilize conference last September, Erick Tseng, Facebook’s head of mobile products put it bluntly, stating, “we’re going to become a mobile company.

But while finding the right way monetize its mobile activity is a big (but solvable) problem, Facebook needs to pay attention to an even bigger problem: its mobile experience sucks.

It’s an unspoken truth that no one really likes using Facebook that much. We may enjoy the services that Facebook provides (connecting with friends, sharing photos, poking, etc.), but the UI is cluttered at best, the privacy issues are myriad, and the reality that Facebook is constructed to harvest our personal data for revenue is omnipresent. Much like Microsoft in the 90’s, Facebook’s value to users and brands is derived from its monopoly: we tolerate Facebook because it’s where our friends (and photos) are.

Despite 425 million mobile users, Facebook’s core issues are exacerbated by its mobile experience. The issues are well known (the notification system is broken, the UI is inelegant, the apps are slow and prone to crashes) and almost universally decried – just take a look at the app ratings of the most recent iPhone, and BlackBerry versions (caveat: Android users seem to really like their version).

A case for Facebook disruption

I’m not saying that it’s easy to condense the convoluted desktop experience of Facebook into a neat mobile package, but the reality is that social media is becoming mobile-first at a time when Facebook is unable to build a great mobile social experience. Consider these core social media functions and the apps that currently perform them better than Facebook: photo sharing (Instagram), location and discovery (Foursquare), news (Flipboard/Twitter), messaging (EVERY IM APP EVER MADE). Consider as well that all of these apps were designed mobile-first (okay, Twitter wasn’t, but if you’re going to somehow try and tell me that the core Twitter experience is somehow the website and not mobile, you’re crazy), and the same goes for upstarts Path and Oink. Facebook is being disrupted in the mobile space by an ever-growing legion of mobile-first social apps that will continue to steal away time, eyeballs, and eventually, ad impressions.

How does Facebook solve this problem? Is it possible to build an app that captures the essence of Facebook in the confines of mobile, without alienating users expecting the desktop experience (the answer is: Path)?

I find it interesting that Facebook recently spun out Messenger into its own separate app. Quite possibly the easiest way for Facebook to fight back against disruption is to provide its borg-like installed base with their own legion of focused and elegant apps – Facebook Photos, Facebook Places, Facebook News, Facebook Games, etc. It would certainly prove the point that Facebook has moved beyond an app or service to become a fully realized and self-sustaining platform.

One question then remains: would users prefer to have a decentralized mobile social experience (the Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram trifecta), or the Borg suite of Facebook apps covering their home screen? Resistance is futile.

About the author

Douglas Soltys

Douglas is the former Editor-In-Chief of Inside BlackBerry, BlackBerry Cool, and QuicklyBored, which he launched as a mobile gaming industry site. His knowledge of mobile and social media led him to a job at RIM (BlackBerry), where he got to travel the world and do lots of cool things. He is often left-handed, but rarely sinister.

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