Mobile

Facebook’s Real “Home” May Be the Developing World

The new Facebook-centric Android app for smartphones builds on other efforts to court mobile users internationally.

About 1.5 billion people are expected to buy their first smartphones in the next four years.

Facebook Home, a new collection of apps that makes the social network dominate Android phones, might have limited appeal to users already besieged with smartphone options—but it could fit nicely into Facebook’s efforts overseas, where the focus is on capturing first-time users.

The app lets Facebook lock the screens of Android smartphones and create a “cover feed” that fills those screens with status updates from Facebook friends. Strictly speaking, it is neither a “Facebook phone” nor a Facebook operating system, but it does create a Facebook-centric phone experience.

Some smartphone owners might roll their eyes (see “The Facebook Phone Is Finally Here, But Who Wants It?”), but Facebook’s real target may be those markets in which smartphone adoption is at an earlier stage of growth.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself alluded to this in launching the new app (see “Facebook Home: a Social Smartphone Makeover”). “Actually only about a third of the world is on the Internet today. So we’re really closer to the beginning of this than the end,” Zuckerberg said, adding: “We’re about to see the most empowered people in a generation. And it’s really an honor to work on these problems.”

Indeed, Facebook’s popularity is surging in some developing countries. For example, in Indonesia, 80 percent of Internet users use Facebook—the largest percentage in the developing world. But relatively few of those users own smartphones. As they make the transition, their predilection for Facebook might mean Facebook Home comes across as natural.

Projections from the Yankee Group, a Boston-based analytics firm, highlight the potential: the number of smartphones in use is projected to double from 1.5 billion in 2013 to nearly 3 billion in 2017. Most of those 1.5 billion new adoptions will be in the developing world, and the vast majority will be lower-end Android phones. Facebook also wants to capture the attention of those who haven’t yet gotten access to the Internet—and will likely first do so on a mobile device. 

Facebook already has a well-established strategy of offering a Facebook-centric Internet to newcomers in the developing world. This began in 2010 with Facebook Zero, which lets Internet carriers offer a stripped-down text version of the social network as a free or low-cost service. About 50 carriers in 45 countries participate, and get revenue when users click out of the text-centric Facebook Zero to see photos or other links displayed in the feed (see “Facebook and Google Create Walled Gardens for Web Newcomers Overseas”).

Facebook Home “may be the next logical step to take people from that first experience,” says Nathan Eagle, CEO of Jana, a Boston startup that conducts mobile-phone surveys in the developing world, paying subjects with airtime to participate. “As the price of Android [phones] drops, this does feel like the next step for engaging with consumers. Facebook Zero has laid that foundation down.”

Since Facebook’s stated mission is to “make the world more open and connected,” it makes sense to look beyond the U.S. market with its smartphone software. After all, more than four billion people have yet to get access to the Internet, and these people will likely get the first taste via a mobile device. If Home is a hit, Facebook could be part of that experience.

Hear more from Facebook at EmTech 2016.
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