Facebook Home goes after mobile market with 'ferocity'

A year after calling mobile a 'risk,' Facebook pushes forward with mobility efforts

Less than a year after Facebook called mobile one of its biggest risks, the social network has made another big move to attack the mobile market.

On Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and CEO, unveiled a launcher, called Home, for the Android platform. The home screen and app family will sit on top - and not replace - the Android operating system.

While many had speculated -- again -- that Facebook was going to unveil its own smartphone, Zuckerberg made it clear that he's focused on making people's mobile phones more social - not creating a whole new phone or diving into the hardware market.

"We want to bring you this experience of knowing what's going on around you right on your phone," he said during a news event to announce Home. "The home screen is really the soul of your phone. You look at it about 100 times a day. It sets the tone for your whole experience."

That's a big advance into mobile for a company that just last spring listed mobility among its "risk factors" in an amended filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, The company admitted that the quickening shift from traditional desktop or laptop computers to mobile devices was hurting Facebook's advertising plan, since it had no way to monetize this growing mobile trend.

Mobile has been a tough nut to crack, not just for Facebook but for all Internet companies. However, given Facebook's massive popularity and 1-billion-member user base, it was a very visible problem for the world's largest social network.

Those days are over, according to Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

"I think they got [mobile] a while ago, but what you're seeing now is them optimizing their experience," he said. "I think this is one in a step of many moves to attack the mobile market with their full ferocity."

Facebook has been strategically focused on mobile for several quarters now.

In 2012, the company finalized its acquisition of Instagram, a popular photo-sharing app, redesigned its iOS app and delivered new development tools for iOS and Android.

In January, executives speaking during the company's fourth-quarter and year-end earnings meeting, called Facebook a "mobile company" and noted that the number of Facebook's monthly active mobile users jumped 57% from a year earlier to 680 million in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Facebook unveiled a launcher, called Home, which, in part, replaces your home screen with a Facebook centric home screen. Do you want Facebook Home as your smartphone's home screen?

Facebook reported that it had more users accessing the network from mobile devices than from laptops or desktops.

Company executives also were quick to point out that mobile accounted for 23% of Facebook's ad revenue in the last quarter of 2012. That's up from 14% in the third quarter and zero at the beginning of last year.

To add an Android launcher to that mix should only help Facebook work its way further into the mobile market.

"This goes a long way to helping Facebook deal with this mobile issue," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "At least from what I've seen so far, it's a good step in the right direction.... I think it's the only road for them to go down."

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said this is a smart move for Facebook. But he doesn't envision a majority of Android users will download the new home screen.

"While I think Home will be a success, I don't think the majority of wireless users will be interested in this full time, always on, Facebook connection," he said. "But this will help Facebook continue to grow.... Mobile is a revolution in industry after industry. Today we never leave the house without our wallet, car keys and wireless phone. That's the direction we are moving in with wireless. And that's the future that Facebook wants to be a leader in."

Facebook unveiled its new Home launcher for Android devices on Thursday.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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