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Facebook has been sizing up the mobile world with hungry eyes for a while now — more than one-third of the social network’s 750-million-plus users are already accessing the site via mobile devices — but this week has seen some hiccups that show it’s not always going to be an easy win for it. Yesterday, the company said that it would be stepping back from one of its more prominent mobile enhancements of the last year — the Places feature. The news came amid a report that a much-touted “Facebook phone” made by HTC (the Status, pictured) was seeing sluggish sales with prominent carrier partner AT&T.
The removal of Places was part of a set of changes that Facebook has made to its settings, which also included modifications to how users can control how they are tagged in pictures (we covered the whole set of privacy changes in more depth here).
Now, instead of users “checking in” to locations using their Facebook app, it seems that Facebook has moved the function into a more general realm, in which users can choose to tag locations for any status update they make, whether it is on a PC or a mobile device. While some have seen this as a “double-down” on location, by making it more ubiquitous, it is also a move that takes Places out of the spotlight, and less in competition with other check-in services like Foursquare and Gowalla.
And, sometimes, when it rains, it pours. On the same day that Facebook announced the changes to Places, another report emerged that threw more question on Facebook’s brand currency in mobile. TechCrunch is reporting that sales of the HTC Status have been sluggish and that AT&T (NYSE: T) was getting ready to pull the device from its lineup.
The Status, sold as the Cha Cha outside the U.S., was one of HTC’s Facebook phones, built using a Facebook API and with a dedicated button to give users a hotlink to uploading content to the social network. At the time of launch, we noted that these devices were an important step in testing the waters for how much people really wanted Facebook as their primarily and destination point on smartphones. If these reports are true, it could mean the answer is “not as much as you would think.”
We’ve asked HTC about this report, and a spokesperson says it does not provide comment on sales. AT&T responded to the story to say: “The HTC Status is a great product and our plans for it to be part of our portfolio haven’t changed.”
Just as it is not clear what the real story is on Status sales, it is not clear how many people were actually using Facebook Places — one estimate from last October put it at 30 million, but without any indication of activity levels.
Yet it was obvious that Facebook had high ambitions to use the service as a way to leverage marketing and advertising opportunities, quickly tying the Places service to Facebook Deals and rolling it out in several markets. (Now that element of the service will pop up whenever a user chooses to enter a location — if a relevant deal is available, it will appear.)
There have been some indications for months now, though, it is still very early days for check-in services. A survey from comScore in May found that only around seven percent of mobile users in the U.S. had tried a check-in service — never mind how many of them were using them regularly. Foursquare’s latest numbers, from April, say the service has picked up 10 million users to date.
How does this bode for Facebook’s latest forays into mobile services, such as its launch of Facebook Messenger? On the positive side for those services, they are possibly more closely linked to what people already use Facebook for, and therefore they may prove to be a more natural extension of the original social network. But the change in Places indicates that when it comes to monetizing those mobile users, Facebook may have be be a bit more patient.