It’s not surprising that Facebook is planning a series of standalone apps to be released this year. In fact, it’s already unbundled some services (whether deliberately or by accident is unclear) with its Facebook Messenger, (failed) Poke and Instagram apps.
To understand why it’s taking this approach, it’s first important to understand what Facebook (on the web) is. In his latest Fast Company column, Om Malik makes the prescient observation that Facebook is today what Yahoo was in the 1990s – a “grand aggregator”. Facebook is number one because it successfully aggregated our social lives (Yahoo, of course, aggregated content in verticals like sports, finance, dating, chat alongside its original directory).
Facebook equals status updates and photos and events and interests and brands and groups and games and notes and messages/chat and classifieds. The News Feed, arguably Mark Zuckerberg’s most important innovation, pulls these all together in a (relatively sticky) stream. And while the News Feed was relevant for the web a few years ago, it’s becoming increasingly less relevant. The problem with pulling all of these discrete pieces of information and services together is that, increasingly, on mobile it doesn’t work.
This is the fundamental problem confronting Facebook right now. It needs to remain relevant in a mobile paradigm (I wrote about this in November). This is not about coding a native app (after a messy and abandoned HTML5 effort) that simply repurposes the website for a narrower, smaller screen.
Mobile is not the same as the ‘web’.
Benedict Evans sums it up simply: “it’s easier to tap the home button than navigate through your hamburger menu system”. In its exclusive about the coming unbundling of apps, The Verge also speaks of the iPhone training “us to crave tools that deliver value swiftly and in single-serving portions”. The best apps (those we are addicted to) are apps that are excellent at a single thing. And in mobile, it’s all about attention.
The “integration” of Instagram — more specifically, the lack thereof — has been telling. Zuckerberg gets this idea of fragmentation and he knows that unbundling is coming. The highball US$3-billion offer for Snapchat begins to make sense. Snapchat would provide the messages/chat leg to Facebook’s future (something that Messenger, despite all its trying and persistent download prompts, hasn’t quite achieved outside of the US).
The rumours of Facebook launching a Flipboard-style newsreader make sense too. Zuck has pontificated about wanting Facebook to be your “personalised newspaper” and it pointed out in a blog post in December that users prefer high-quality content – “surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile.”
On the face of it, it might seem strange that Facebook is taking this route, but in the mobile space — and with a reader/’magazine’-type product — it’s not unusual at all.
The Verge speculates that Events/calendar and search (with its powerful Graph Search product) are two more verticals that Facebook could work on unbundling. Both of those make sense. In fact, in search, Facebook has the opportunity to redefine what search is. But, I reckon it’s still too early for Facebook to make a play in this space.
The games vertical offers another possibility. Does a deal for Zynga (which is hardly worth $3bn) sound that far-fetched?
The future of Facebook is dependent on how well it redefines itself in the age of mobile. If Zuck is successful, in a few years’ time, Facebook will be unrecognisable from what we know today. (If it still looks similar, it’ll be a shadow of the US$100-billion company it is today, doomed to become what happened to MySpace (and Geocities)…)