Source: Flickr user thomas chapman
The New York Times raised eyebrows over the weekend with this piece claiming Facebook plans to release a branded smartphone within the next year or so. But it’s the other rumor – the one about a Facebook browser for mobile phones – that makes much more sense for the massive social network.
Smartphone manufacturing is a crowded, cutthroat business where differentiating your product is almost impossible, and where profits are hard to come by – just ask any vendor whose name isn’t Apple or Samsung. It would take years for Facebook to establish the distribution channels and carrier relationships that are crucial for worldwide success. And while the novelty of a branded phone may have had some appeal a few years ago, many of us now view Facebook as just one of several social networks and online communication tools we use every day.
A Facebook browser: A small bet that could pay off in a big way
But launching a branded mobile browser would be a safer bet that could pay off in very big ways for Facebook, especially if it bought its way onto the field by acquiring Opera Software. It’s very difficult for third-party browsers to gain traction because most consumers simply use the default browser on their phones – typically Apple’s Safari or the unnamed browser included with Android. But Opera Mini, a 6-year-old browser that formats Internet content for mobile phones, already has an enormous audience of 168 million users. That technology could go a long way toward enhancing Facebook’s mobile website and apps, which are often criticized for being slow and difficult to navigate.
And while distribution is a huge challenge for most browser developers, Facebook has the mobile audience to grow Opera’s user base in a hurry: More than half of Facebook’s 900 million members around the world access the social network on a mobile device, so it could advertise the browser through its own site and apps, encouraging users to download it with a single click.
A Facebook browser would present opportunities to create the revenue streams the company sorely lacks in mobile. It would provide huge swaths of inventory that could be used to deliver the ads upon which Facebook’s business is built. It would enable Facebook to forge lucrative partnerships with search engines, content providers and others who will play increasingly important roles as mobile data usage ramps up. It would give Facebook the opportunity to deliver targeted ads more accurately based on user behavior within the browser. And it could be the foundation of its effort to distribute apps to smartphone users via the Web.
A weapon in the war against Apple and Google
Most importantly, though, a browser would enable Facebook to wrest some control away from Apple and Google, which dominate the user experience on so many smartphones. A Facebook browser could essentially serve as a Web-based operating system, allowing the social network to compete with iOS and Android without becoming a smartphone vendor. That opportunity doesn’t really exist today because of HTML5 still isn’t ready for prime time in mobile, but those shortcomings will continue to be addressed and resolved over the next few years.
Opera’s selling price reportedly could surpass $1 billion if a bidding war breaks out, which might be too steep for Facebook’s tastes. But the social network could acquire another browser developer (Skyfire comes to mind), it could build its own offering, or it could partner with a player like Yahoo, whose new Axis offering is garnering positive reviews. But an Opera acquisition would bring top-notch mobile browser technology as well as a huge user base that’s particularly strong in some emerging markets. And that would give Facebook a huge opportunity to make gains as the mobile world expands beyond native applications into the much broader world of the wireless web.