What's Facebook up to With Android?

What's Facebook up to With Android?
No matter what Facebook announces on April 4, the company's biggest challenges are in mobile (Photograph by Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)
Photograph by Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook’s forthcoming Android announcement on April 4, whatever it may be, is an indication of one thing: For all its successes on the Web, the company’s mobile future is far less certain.

We don’t really know what Facebook is going to unveil on Thursday, but there are some things we do know, and they are true today, Thursday, and after Thursday:

  • Facebook’s livelihood depends on mobile.
  • Mobile has many and different competitors for Facebook—some with worrisomely large user bases.
  • Making “Poke” apps ain’t cutting it.

That’s not to say that Facebook’s in peril; it just has a harder road ahead of it. Think of it this way: If I say “social network” to you, you’re likely to say “Facebook.” Yes, some of you will say Twitter, or Tumblr, but it’s a comparatively smaller crowd.

On mobile, things are different—and we know this. Facebook’s efforts to reorient itself toward mobile are well established. The company has taken a mobile-first approach, which has led to such apps as Messenger, Camera, and the not-awesome Poke as well as the purchase of Instagram. But the mobile field is far more competitive when it comes to messaging and communication. Facebook’s Messenger has amassed tens of millions of users, but independent chat apps such as Whatsapp and WeChat have users in the hundreds of millions. “There are nine [social] services with more than a hundred million users each,” says Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis. “And at least another 20 with more than a million users each.”

Here’s another word-association game: Have you heard of Kik? I’m guessing most of you haven’t, because I didn’t until Evans mentioned it to me (after we spoke, he wrote more about Kik—and Facebook, and mobile—on his blog; you should check it out) . And yet Kik, another social-chat app, has something like 30 million users and is adding them at a rate of 100,000 a day.

That has to keep Facebook up at night. There are tens of these little and not-so little competitors, and any one of them can break out at any moment. “On the desktop, no one’s going to do a better Facebook than Facebook,” says Evans. “But on mobile, that question is wide open.”

So what do you do? Maybe you hook up with a manufacturer to develop a phone. Maybe that manufacturer is HTC, as many have reported. No doubt Facebook would like to offer its users a richer mobile experience (that’s French for “take over more phone functions such as the address book, SMS, camera uploading, etc.”). And if HTC wants to be a “lead partner” with that experience preloaded, why not? But some industry watchers wonder why Facebook would limit the better experience to only one phone? Why not offer that to as many people as possible?

Analysts such as Evans and Horace Dediu of Asymco suspect that Facebook will have some kind of Android superapp, one that will break out of the traditional app shell and do such things as make your phone’s home screen your Facebook home page. Because Android is open source, Facebook can “fork” it—make deeper changes to the OS than just run an app on it—just as Amazon did when it forked Android to create the Kindle Fire’s OS. “If Facebook wants to do some deep integration, they might need the cooperation of device makers to install this new layer of software,” writes Dediu in an e-mail.

This is not something you can do on Apple’s iOS, of course. Apple has allowed Facebook some integration with sharing features, but it’s entirely up to Apple to decide what Facebook can and cannot do on its OS. Android, on the other hand, is down for whatever.

Dediu says an app would make far more sense than a truly exclusive device. He bases his conclusion on a not-terribly close reading of Facebook’s invitation to its Thursday event. “By reading the announcement, it’s pretty obvious to me that it’s not a phone,” he wrote. “It’s a ‘home on Android,’ which implies an app. Had it been a phone, it would not likely be touting the use of their largest competitor’s trademark.”

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