Facebook is missing a trick on apps (and copying from Twitter to boot!)

Facebook is all about mobile. Its number of active users — 750 million — is impressive. Even with engagement slowing in more mature markets, it is on track to be the first platform in history to crack the 1-billion user mark.

A full third of those active users (250-million) access the site via mobile devices. Facebook itself admits that people who use Facebook on mobile devices are “twice as active on Facebook than non-mobile users”.

So where’s the innovation?

That said, not much innovation can really happen on the mobile site itself. Facebook has taken the standard tick-box approach of making sure that the user experience on the mobile site fits the limitations of the phone accessing it. And its gone a step further and, together with mobile operators, launched 0.facebook.com — a zero-rated “free” experience that strips out photos. This free site (no data charges) is helping drive Facebook usage in emerging markets.

As smartphone adoption grows, the real focus turns to apps. And right now, Facebook’s apps on each of the major platforms are nothing but elementary.

Its app for iPhones and iPod Touches is probably the most installed application on the iOS platform. It was the top free app in the iTunes App Store for ages. Now it’s slipped to number 25, simply because everyone already has it (and has had it for years!)

In Google’s Android Market, its fourth on the top free apps list. On BlackBerry — by far the top free app in App World, and it’s in the top five on Windows Phone Marketplace.

A guess: there are over 100-million Facebook apps installed globally.

Change logs on Facebook’s iOS App reveal a never-ending list of bug fixes. The latest version (3.5, released in September) comes a full six months after 3.4. The bug fixes are no doubt indicative of rapid development sprints, but why are material changes to the app coming twice a year (if that!)?

(One can only imagine the same is true for apps for the other major operating systems.)

The bug fixes and changes in each version also indicate a high turnover of staff working on the project inside Facebook. No one “owns” these products on the inside. And if there is a product manager, they are doing a poor job.

Buttons move around between versions. One of the most frustrating things for users of the iPhone app was the ever shifting “Submit” and “Enter” buttons. They swapped around, they took turns disappearing, they changed names.

The overall UI is appalling and there are things you used to be able to do in previous versions (like “liking” individual comments) that you no longer can.

Facebook’s freshest version brings with it a slightly more unified user experience, but there are still parts that don’t seem to belong in this new version.

If you have the feeling you’ve seen it all before, you probably have.

The new “Update status” interface has been shamelessly copied from Twitter’s native app, as pointed out by Twitter mobile designer Bryan Haggerty (and reported by Techcrunch).

Spot the difference.

Facebook has been completely absent on the iPad. There’s an app for the BlackBerry PlayBook (no doubt thanks to a hefty “incentive” from RIM). There’s no native app for Android tablets and still nothing for the iPad.

But Facebook’s secret iPad app, with a heavy focus on photos, exists. It was uncovered in July, but is still hidden two months later.

Does Facebook not get the tablet market? Will the secret iPad app ever be released? Is it hell-bent on building its own HTML5 platform to compete with Apple?

Why is no one inside Facebook serious about mobile apps?

And why, with 250-million (really active) users, are they not monetising their apps yet?!



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