Social mobility

Mobile couldn’t be more important to Facebook, the world’s leading social network. In mature markets users are increasingly interacting with the platform from their mobile device and, as the company strives to reach one billion users, it is pushing into emerging markets where fixed access is limited at best, and non-existent at worst.

Inevitably mobile as a share of overall Facebook access is set to grow and, speaking to at the launch of a new range of Facebook-centric handsets developed with Orange and Alcatel towards the end of 2011, Henri Moissinac, head of mobile at Facebook, is emphatic: “Mobile is one of the top priorities for the company. Our users are going mobile; in fact, the entire company is going to become mobile.”

When Moissinac joined Facebook four years ago, mobile access accounted for only a small fraction of usage. Today the firm has 800 million users, almost half of which regularly access its services from mobile devices. And in some advanced markets, mobile access already accounts for a significant majority of user interaction. So a strategy that sees the firm involving itself in everything from device design to carrier pricing has already gained enormous momentum.

“We see a world where every Facebook user is a mobile user, a world where every phone out there is a social phone,” Moissinac says. “We see a world where we will have more access from mobile than from the desktop.”

The firm is working closely with the various players in the mobile ecosystem to further its cause. Moissinac says that Facebook has so far partnered with around 300 mobile operators, to differing extents, as well as collaborating with handset vendors and platform developers. As those different players vie with one another for leverage with the consumer, Facebook looks to pick the best partner for any given situation, he says.

“Some devices are controlled by the OS developer and some have the vendor skin, as with HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Blur or Sony Xperia. In those cases we’re not working with the operators; we really have to work with everyone,” he says. “It was very difficult when we started because we had limited resources and we had to pick our battles. Now we are so broad that we’re working with everyone.”

Moissinac says his firm’s mobile strategy has three pillars; smartphones, feature phones and data pricing. With smartphones the goal is to push the integration between Facebook and the operating system as far as it can go. “We’ve also started tinkering with the hardware,” he says, referencing dedicated Facebook keys on devices like the range launched with Orange in November.

Moissinac describes this new device range as featuring the deepest set of integrations that the firm has implemented on a device so far. The Facebook hard key is intended to drive contextual functionality. So if a user hits the key while browsing the web, they’ll get a shortcut to share the link. Similarly if they hit it while looking at a picture in their handset image gallery, they’ll be prompted to post the photo to their facebook account.

Just how far this tinkering will go remains to be seen. At the platform level, Facebook has done much to integrate its services into the various smartphone operating systems, Moissinac says. “We are making these platforms more social and more relevant for developers,” he explains. “Not all apps need to be social but there are many services and experiences that do. We want to power the social aspect of these apps across all platforms and devices.”

The suggestion has been made that Facebook could exist as a rival application development platform in its own right—or at least as a UX environment similar in a way to the ones deployed by the vendors Moissinac references above. Moissinac is clearly wary of talking in terms of rivalling the likes of iOS and Android, but says Facebook is “planning for” a device where the Facebook skin would be the handset’s primary interface.

“We’ve taken steps towards that on specific experiences. So on these new devices you can sync your address book with you Facebook contacts. For some devices and some users maybe that will be the only address book they use. We’re planning for this but we don’t think the entire world will go that way.”

With feature phones the aim is to get as many users as possible onto native applications for Facebook, and move them away from the firm’s mobile internet experience. “We’ve seen that every time we upgrade the user from the mobile site to the application, the engagement goes through the roof,” he says. “They can have a better and faster experience of Facebook, using less data.”

But it is the firm’s interest in the pricing of access as a barrier to usage that is perhaps the most arresting element of its strategy. In recent years leading operators have begun to make the suggestion that originators and beneficiaries of traffic, of which Facebook is in the top tier, ought perhaps to contribute in some way to the cost of providing it. Unfortunately for those operators, this does not appear to be on the table—or at least any such activity is being flatly denied.

Instead, Moissinac and Facebook are focussed on driving the cost of usage down—although details as to how this will be done are sketchy. He makes vague reference to some work on data compression but places more emphasis on “trying to work with mobile operators in order to make access to Facebook as affordable as possible; working with them to try and do pricing bundles and promotions and getting people comfortable with using the mobile internet.”

While consumers in more mature markets who often have mobile data bundles with plenty of headroom are unlikely to be phased by the cost of mobile access to Facebook, price is a far more sensitive issue for users in less developed markets. “In some segments, especially if you’re going into countries where prepaid is more dominant,” says Moissinac, “there is a perception that every time they go online to do something it’s going to cost them. We’re not the ultimate decision maker on pricing, but we want to work with operators to see what’s relevant to the target segments.

Moissinac is at pains to stress that Facebook’s influence on pricing is limited but is equally insistent that “we want to drive the cost as low as possible,” for users accessing Facebook on the fly. Orange’s vice president for devices, Patrick Remy, suggested at the launch of the new Alcatel phones that the benefit for Orange is that Facebook access can act as a gateway to a wider mobile data experience for users and that they should see a traffic and revenue upside as a result of putting such co-developed devices into the hands of their customers.

With Orange and Facebook watching their words so closely on the nature of their partnership, it’s impossible to measure the benefits coming back to each player. But the sense is that Orange is shouldering a lot more of the burden in this relationship, and that Facebook is getting the majority of the upside. The principal benefit for the carrier seems to be the chance to bathe in some of Facebook’s glow.

So when Moissinac says that “Orange has always been a special partner when it comes to launching new things in Europe, and now it’s the same in emerging markets like Africa and Eastern Europe” he’s providing the kudos that’s part of the deal. The potential snag for operators like Orange is that, when he says he wants to explain to end users the “value of the connected mobile internet” he may be setting that value lower than the operator community would like.

One comment

  1. Avatar Accenture Mobility 16/01/2012 @ 5:29 pm

    Right now, mobile users number 350 million. What happens when 800 million users engage in Facebook mobile? It puts the data spectrum crunch in perspective, and sheds some light on Google+ user-focused search responses…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.