Facebook attempts to fix the mobile web. Thats right, all of it!

One of the keynotes at the Mobile World Congress 2012 was by Facebook CTO Brett Taylor and addressed Facebook’s initiative to fix the Mobile web. They think the mobile web is important because the majority of their users are on mobile web and not as many would believe on Android or iPhone apps.

Facebook correctly identifies three problems faced by mobile web developers:

  • Technology fragmentation. HTML5 is marketed as unifying mobile web. In reality there are 100 different HTML5 versions.
  • Payment. Payment is a mess. There are some countries where organisations are in place that allow a single entry point for mobile payment (the UK has the pay-for-it standard for example) but in most places developers have to broker deals with all major telecom operators.
  • App discovery. It’s hard to drive users to your mobile website/webapp. App stores provide a much easier way for users to find your apps that the mobile web does.

Currently to deal with these problems mobile developers have to have a good fragmentation strategy, know how to drive traffic to their mobile site and maintain a good network in the mobile industry to make payments possible. Itude Mobile does all these things but its hard work and i welcome any initiative to make life easier. A future where we can make a mobile website with minimal fragmentation support effort, get users to the site and get paid when they use it sounds good. All glued together with facebook technology.

Facebook is huge, so they will succeed won’t they?

Facebook is massive. As far as i know it is collecting the single largest group of users in its mobile platform that the world has ever seen. It has the clout and the resources to actually make this happen. It could potentially create a mobile ecosystem larger than Apple and Google combined. But there are some serious hurdles to clear. This is not the first initiative by a massive company to provide a unified mobile web ecosystem. The problems facebook identifies are old problems and they will not go away easily:

  • 2009: Remember Yahoo? In 2009 Yahoo launched an initiative to unify mobile web apps in what was known as widgets (an old name for HTML5). Then Blackberry and Nokia tried to do the same. Then they joined forces, they they diverged and Nokia tried the OVI store. The W3C was involved in there somewhere but probably just for show. None of these companies seem to have succeeded in unifying mobile web and payment technology three years on.
  • 2010: Vodafone 360 and JIL. In 2010 Vodafone and China Mobile launched Vodafone 360 / JIL to provide a unified mobile web ecosystem where developers could offer paid webapps to hundreds of millions of users. They talked the talk, but it seems to have died a silent death?
  • 2012: Facebook.

I hope Facebook succeeds, i really do. But i’m not holding my breath. There are forces that may defeat even Facebook. For the last decade each device manufacturer has tried to gain market advantage by having a cooler browser than competitors.  Apart from Apple, all handset manufacturers have benefited from product diversification. Will that change?  Operators have a history of frustrating unified billing solutions. That was one of the nails in the coffin of Nokia’s OVI store. App discovery is something which Facebook can do better than most predecessors. Where the mobile web’s walled gardens were hard to enter for many developers, Facebook is fairly transparent, highly targetted and can provide viral discovery through social mechanisms. In any case this is one to watch and learn from.

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