Facebook Mobile

Oi mate - text me on Kik - it's like Whatsapp - download it

-One drunk shouting to another across a London street last week

It seems pretty clear that Facebook has won 'social' on the desktop. No-one will do to Facebook what Facebook did to Myspace: no-one will beat Facebook on its home ground, just as no-one beat Google or Yahoo on theirs.  

It is not clear that the same is true on mobile. It is not clear what the right social network experience is on mobile, and it is not clear that Facebook is dominant in such experiences as there are. Facebook is certainly doing well: its own primary smartphone apps have over half a billion active users, but the secondary apps (Camera, Messenger etc) have had more moderate success (Camera in particular fizzled). Yet there are well over a dozen other mobile social apps each with over 100m users, and probably two dozen with over 10m users and the potential to be much bigger.

The primary threat posed by all of these apps is unbundling. Instagram took photos and Whatsapp and others take messaging: both are just an icon on the home screen next to Facebook, and it seems much more fluid to switch between apps than to go to a whole other website. Meanwhile clever approaches like Whatsapp's use of the phone number as your ID help bypass the hurdle of rebuilding your social network afresh on every app.

Instagram is also instructive because of the way it grew to tens of millions of users with half-a-dozen employees and a tiny amount of funding. App stores and cloud computing mean that if you get the formula right - and get very very lucky - you can grow to astonishing scale in six months with very little money. And a billion people now have smartphones with app stores.

However, it seems to me that the deeper problem comes not from the comms apps that directly attack Facebook's offer, but from the third-party content. Consider a few things you might do on Facebook on the desktop:

  1. See updates from your favourite band
  2. Look at a local restaurant
  3. See a new story in a magazine
  4. See a post from a friend about a show on at a museum
  5. Find out that a shop is having a sale

Some or all of those are sources of revenue for Facebook. Yet on a smartphone, how many of them would happen first in the Facebook app? How many would come in dedicated apps - either from the brand itself (a magazine app) or a vertical app (Yelp, Songkick etc). Of course, there's no guarantee you'll install those third party apps, but the keener and hence more valuable a person is the more they're likely to.

This is, of course, exactly the same problem that everyone points out for Google: apps erode web search. Google is trying to address that by moving beyond web search with things like Google Now, which is just one manifestation of a deeper reorientation of how it looks at search (indeed, some of those pieces of content might well appear in Google Now). But apps may actually be just as big a problem for Facebook, both because they enable competitors, and because they might erode the actual use cases that make Facebook money.