Why Facebook Must Fix Its Broken Mobile Apps

Wednesday May 16th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Prior to its IPO, Facebook finds itself in scramble mode to do something about its flawed mobile experience.

If you could think of a single behavior that defines the zeitgeist our time, it would be the uploading of mobile phone pictures to Facebook.

This particular act -- and the convergence of social networking and mobile computing generally -- dominates the hard-core center of what’s happening in Silicon Valley right now. The reason is that sharing mobile photos has suddenly become central to people’s identity and how they connect with others.

As such, it’s the un-tapped marketing opportunity of the millennium.

That’s why it’s weird that big social networks in general, and Facebook in particular, have failed to create a good mobile experience for users -- or a sustainable way to monetize mobile. It hasn’t been a priority -- until now. It shouldn’t be so complicated or take so long. At the very least, there are two major all-purpose social networks (Facebook and Google+) and two major mobile platforms (iOS and Android). The Apple iPad utterly dominates the tablet scene, so at minimum Facebook and Google should be concerned with the iPad.

(Note that Twitter and Pinterest are “major” but not “all purpose” and, in my opinion, not even social networks. They’re really social microblogging platforms.)

Given the centrality and importance of mobile social networking, Facebook and Google should have totally compelling apps for iPhones, iPads and Android phones.

Yet both these companies have failed to get anywhere near this all-important goal.

What’s Wrong with Mobile Social Networks

Facebook’s iOS and Android apps are a disaster visually, functionally and, above all, architecturally.

Mobtest, which is a site that brings together app developers and test volunteers, featured a post written by the site’s creator, Dirk de Kok, about “why the Facebook iOS app is so bad.”

By “bad,” de Kok means the app is slow, provides inconsistent information and is crawling with bugs. According to his tests, the problem is that the architecture is a kludgy mishmash of awkwardly implemented technologies and standards.

At its core, the Facebook app uses HTML and other technologies from inside the app, and does so in a way that assures glitches and problems.

Although de Kok analyzed only the iOS app, the Android app is similar.

There are two other problems with the Facebook app for both iOS and Android. First, it’s ugly. That’s subjective, but compared with so many beautiful apps coming on the market, including social apps like Path, it looks to me like a throwback to a bygone era.

But the Mother of All Problems with the Facebook mobile apps is that it fails to monetize Facebook. Facing a hotly anticipated iPO on Friday, this is a huge problem because a growing majority of Facebook usage now happens via mobile devices.

Desktop access is a semi-monetized medium, and mobile is a conspicuously under-monetized one. Following the trend lines, Facebook has got to figure out how to get money from mobile or face declining revenues.

Right now, the model is advertising, and it’s not working. GM plans to stop advertising on Facebook because they reportedly believe the network is an ineffective advertising medium. Expect other major advertisers to follow.

The Solution? Better Mobile Apps

Facebook knows they’ve got a problem. That’s why the company has been in a mad scramble to convince the world in time for Friday’s IPO that Facebook mobile has an appealing and monetizable future.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced this week that the company’s top priority is to improve the mobile apps. And Zuck is putting his money where his mouth is.

Facebook this week acquired a startup called Lightbox. It was an “acqui-hire” -- they did it for the seven-member staff. The product will be killed.

Lightbox is -- was -- a photo-sharing app. Users have until June 15th to get their pictures off the servers before they’re deleted.

Facebook’s Lightbox move comes only five weeks after they paid a billion dollars for Instagram, another photo-sharing service.

Based on these acquisition, it’s a safe bet that Facebook's mobile direction is toward picture-heavy, design-centric interfaces that would make Facebook really excel at the core usage -- uploading and viewing camera phone pictures.

The emphasis on pictures is so urgent that Facebook is rushing out this week (before the Friday IPO) an update that boosts picture size, but essentially under the existing design.

Expect, however, big-as-possible pictures with a super update later this year or early next. This would bring Facebook up to par with the likes of Path, Instagram and, suddenly, even rival Google+ with picture-heavy design.

The new Google+ iOS app, announced this week, is very much in line with where mobile social apps are going, and where Facebook is sure to go.

The main Google+ mobile app stream view is almost entirely about pictures, with just a few words -- fewer than possible even with Twitter’s 140-character limit -- overlaid on top of the picture. To read the full post, you have to tap on the picture to drill down.

The new Google+ iOS app is better than the existing Facebook app, and vastly superior to the old Google+ app. However, it’s still inadequate.

For example, you can post, but you can’t edit what you’ve already posted. Landscape mode is strictly for posting, not for viewing the stream or using any of the other features. Worst of all, there is no iPad version. iPad users are expected to just use the iPhone version at double size.

Facebook’s IPO will raise a lot of capital. But perhaps even more valuable is that IPO process has clarified for Facebook what it must do: Fix its broken approach to mobile by making the phone and tablet experience compelling and hyper-visual, and a major source of revenue.

Success or failure in mobile will determine whether Facebook becomes the new Apple -- or the new MySpace.

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