Photo: Robert Scoble
Facebook is supposedly working on a web-based app platform for smartphones, which would compete with the iPhone’s (and potentially Android’s) built-in app stores.This is smart — exactly the sort of stuff that Facebook should be doing. But it will be hard to make this work right away.
The details are sketchy, but TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, who says he has seen the project, says “there are believed to be 80 or so outside developers working with Facebook” … “on apps for the platform that range from games to news-reading apps.”
Zynga, the top Facebook games maker, and Huffington Post, the controller of TechCrunch, are reportedly involved. So it’s not amateur hour.
The big idea, we gather, is to make Facebook a mobile platform, the way it is on the web, and not just a dinky app sitting on your iPhone’s home screen. This gives control to Facebook, allows for new social features in apps, allows Facebook credits to act as a currency, and takes some control away from Apple and Google.
This is exactly the sort of project that Facebook should be working on — as well as anything else that could put Facebook in the driver’s seat on mobile. Mobile is the future of computing, especially for social networking, and Facebook must own as much of it as it can.
So far, Facebook has built a huge mobile audience, but hasn’t become a mobile platform. This is the beginning of that.
That said, there are a lot of challenges in getting this to work. These include…
Teaching and reminding people this new app platform exists, and that they should use it first instead of going straight to the iPhone App Store.
The Facebook iPhone app has around 80 million monthly users, so that’s a great place to start promoting these new apps, and it could see significant usage right away.
But Apple has done a great job turning the App Store into THE app search engine on phones. Can Facebook get people to browse its store before Apple’s? Or at least browse it at all? This gets complicated quickly, as my colleague Jay Yarow points out.
Web-based apps, especially games, are still not as good as native apps.
They can’t do many things on the phone that native apps can do, they don’t do graphics as fast, etc. The Facebook web apps probably just aren’t going to be as good right away, and people may be frustrated with them or see them as pointless.
That said, the browser will continue to improve, so perhaps this won’t be so much of an issue going forward except for sophisticated games. Technology is definitely moving in the direction of better web apps, so this isn’t a bad trend to ride. And maybe Facebook has built some tools that will help developers with some of the shortcomings of web apps.
This is where Facebook’s “secret sauce” — the social layer — will have to outshine all the shortcomings. Or people won’t care, the apps won’t see much usage, and this project could fail.
Most people aren’t signed into Facebook on their phone’s browser.
You’re signed into the Facebook app, but the minute you get dumped into a browser session, it doesn’t know who you are. People aren’t going to be thrilled if they have to sign in all the time. This is where Twitter’s new single sign-on — being built right into iOS — could be a useful feature for Facebook to have. Let’s hope Facebook has a solution for this.
What about Apple? Is it going to go nuts and thwart Facebook’s plans? Not if it’s smart.
Apple’s business is selling hardware. The more iPhones, iPads, and iPods it sells, the more profit it makes. If Facebook can make a great social web apps platform for the iPhone, all the better.
Apple’s job is to continue to make iOS and the mobile Safari browser the best on the market, and not worry too much about the rest. If the iPhone browser continues to be the best and most useful in the world, people will keep buying iPhones, and Apple will do well.
Yes, the App Store is a way to lock people into keeping iPhones forever, and to use iTunes as their payments method. But iTunes and the App Store are not where Apple makes its money — that comes from selling hardware. And let’s be honest: Even if this Facebook thing is a big hit, it’s not going to destroy the iPhone App Store.
So if Apple were smart, they’d give Facebook all the room they need to make a great iPhone web app store, and use it as a way to sell more iPhones.
Bottom line: Facebook needs to do more of this, and it’s actually a shame they didn’t start this 4 years ago, when the iPhone launched.
We fully expect Facebook to try to own as much of the mobile market as possible, developing its own mobile platforms that run directly on phones, that run in the web browser, that act as App Stores, etc. This is just the beginning. And it’s very smart on Facebook’s behalf.
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