Photo: Associated Press
In seven years, Facebook has grown to become the largest social network in the world, with more than 800 million active users.But there is a fundamental technology shift starting, which will require Facebook to change its game or risk losing relevance: The shift toward mobile computing and smartphones.
The big question is: As mobile Internet usage eventually reaches and passes today’s desktop PC internet usage, will Facebook remain the dominant social network? Or will a mobile-first or mobile-only service surprise and pass Facebook — the way Facebook did to MySpace?
Facebook has already established itself as today’s mobile-social leader: It boasts that more than 350 million active users access it through mobile devices. Facebook for iPhone has 95 million monthly active users by itself. Carriers around the world work with Facebook to provide service for their subscribers, even those with basic phones.
But the shift to the mobile Internet is just beginning. Barely a third of Americans have smartphones, a percentage that’s much lower elsewhere. There are billions of mobile subscribers in the world. Someday, most will have smartphones. Will Facebook be their social tool of choice?
Today, even on a sophisticated iPhone, Facebook doesn’t feel like it was designed for mobile. The desktop service is great, but Facebook on a phone can feel convoluted and unnatural. It has gotten better, but it’s clear that Facebook’s desktop-web version is still the company’s focus.
One question is: How long will the mobile version of Facebook continue to be a miniaturized version of its desktop version, without many unique attributes or features? Another is: How will Facebook try to address things like location? Its early attempt, Facebook Places, was underwhelming. Or how about mobile payments? Facebook may be the photo sharing leader, but how did rival Instagram get so popular, so fast? Why didn’t Facebook do that?
And how will Facebook transform itself into a mobile platform, not just a service? Companies like Zynga have built huge businesses on Facebook’s desktop platform through social gaming. Can Facebook capture that important status on mobile? It is trying, with a new mobile-social platform based on HTML5. In theory, this will be cross-platform, so it can run on iPhones, Android, and future mobile devices. (Someday, perhaps even a Facebook phone.) But will it succeed?
The pieces are in place for Facebook to continue its dominance of the desktop Internet on mobile devices. It is certainly the strongest incumbent, and it is making progress. But it has also had relatively smooth sailing since MySpace collapsed. Besides Twitter, Facebook hasn’t really faced much serious competition.
The shift to mobile will be complicated. Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team must devote a huge amount of resources and talent to figuring out what the correct mobile social network looks like and how it works differently than today’s Facebook. (It may be drastically different.) Then they must build it.
Or Facebook could drop the ball, opening the door for new, mobile-tailored rivals, one of which could eventually surpass Facebook in popularity. It sounds crazy, but one of the amazing things about the Internet is how quickly a new player can topple an existing giant. And Facebook knows all about that.
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