There are still lots of unanswered questions about what Facebook hopes to do in mobile. The company has denied that it plans to build its own handset (then again, so did Google) or develop a mobile operating system, but it appears the social network is working with INQ to deliver an Android-based handset.
As Liz pointed out, plenty of reasons exist for Facebook to offer a branded phone. But producing one isn’t necessary for the company to better leverage mobile. Regardless of whether Facebook truly does trot out a new handset, here are a few things Zuckerberg and Co. should do to capitalize on the exploding world of mobile data:
Open its own app store. As I wrote more than a year ago, Facebook already has a massive developer community, a payment system and tremendous traffic — three components key for any distributor of mobile apps. While it obviously couldn’t deliver applications to iPhone users (only Apple can do that), Facebook could certainly tap into the booming Android space, not to mention the huge Symbian market, and help partners like Zynga extend the reach of their community-based games to wireless. Doing so would also enable Facebook to better extend its all-important advertising business to mobile.
Leverage its vast library of contact information. Android automatically syncs contact information for Facebook users. The Facebook iPhone app, on the other hand, does little more than add profile photos of friends to the handset’s address book. Adding information like phone numbers and email addresses would be more useful and would encourage users to entrust their data and other content to the Facebook cloud. Other features like presence and location (via check-ins) would also greatly increase value. The bare-bones iPhone app may be an indication that Facebook doesn’t want to run afoul of Apple’s opaque App Store policies, but those issues could be addressed by clearly giving users the ability to opt into (or out of) such functionality.
Compete with Google Voice. Improving the sync of contact information paves the way for a user’s Facebook ID to become more important than the phone number itself, as Om noted last week. Opening up a mobile address book — which essentially is a user’s network of Facebook friends — would allow one to call, IM, text message or email anyone in their network with just a couple of clicks. Those using non-Facebook IM services could be alerted to new messages via whichever client they’re using (Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger, etc.). Facebook could even serve as a single connector for various IM offerings just as Meebo and other services do. Facebook’s mobile app could help users track and organize their communications across platforms, like Google’s GV Mobile does. And it’s worth noting that Apple just approved GV Mobile for its App Store.
Allow users to share information with specific groups. Facebook users who go to the trouble can tweak their settings so that only family members see certain information (political views, relationship status, etc.), while friends — or even friends of friends — can see things like birthdays and status updates. Instead, Facebook should add functionality to both its site and mobile apps that would enable users to create groups of friends — say, colleagues, college buddies and family members — as well as customized groups of hand-picked individuals, just as we do with email services. Then users should be able to distribute photos, links and other Facebook-y content to specific groups. Once those settings are established online, they should be easy to find and use on the phone, making it simple to send the right content to the right people.
Facebook has plenty of other challenges in mobile, but it has a massive base of 500 million users — most of whom are fairly young and tech-savvy. Which means the company has unprecedented opportunity to change the way we communicate and interact on our handsets. But it will take much more than just a Facebook phone for that to happen.
Related Research: Lessons From Google – How Facebook Can Reach One Billion Users