Had Facebook been built today, it would be mobile.”
That was a casual statement made last Thursday by James Pearce, head of mobile developer relations for Facebook to a small group of writers (including myself) during a lunch at Facebook HQ.
I thought Pearce’s statement was intriguing, but it got a whole lot more interesting Monday morning when Facebook dropped $1 billion to buy its biggest competitor in the mobile space: Instagram.
The photo-sharing app is essentially everything Facebook wants to be on your mobile phone. Facebook wants people using its mobile app to share photos of what they’re doing with friends and to share their location -– something Instagram users have no problem doing.
“For years, we’ve focused on building the best experience for sharing photos with your friends and family.” Zuckerberg said in the announcement Monday. “Now, we’ll be able to work even more closely with the Instagram team to also offer the best experiences for sharing beautiful mobile photos with people based on your interests.”
Instagram was already huge. With the launch of its Android app last week it was poised to get even bigger, fast. While the company was valued at $500 million just before the Facebook buyout, it could certainly have grown to a $1 billion valuation on its own.
Adding Android support also puts the photo-sharing app in the hands of much of the smartphone-carrying population. Add a desktop app into the mix –- there are a few unofficial ones available already -– and you’ve got a fully-fledged social network on your hands.
“This is an important milestone for Facebook because it’s the first time we’ve ever acquired a product and company with so many users,” Zuckerberg said. “We don’t plan on doing many more of these, if any at all.
“But providing the best photo sharing experience is one reason why so many people love Facebook and we knew it would be worth bringing these two companies together.”
Facebook wasn’t just buying an app. They were buying out the competition.
The bigger picture
To Facebook, being part of the mobile game means being one of the apps you’re using on your phone most regularly.
So while Instagram the app is a huge win for the company, the bigger win for Facebook is the staff of the company who built it.
In the Instagram announcement, Zuckerberg noted Facebook’s plans to “try to learn from Instagram’s experience to build similar features into our other products” and that the company was “looking forward to working with the Instagram team, and to all of the great new experiences we’re going to be able to build together.”
One thing Facebook is trying to build is a support system for web-based app developers. If you can run an app in your browser, then you can eliminate the App Store or Google Play store entirely. I could purchase the same version of Angry Birds to run on my iPhone as my friend using a Windows Phone. Developers could make one version of an app rather than one for each platform, lowering their cost and making it easier to get it in the hands of consumers.
Facebook sends 60 million people to third-party apps every month. While the social network has certainly gotten a substantial amount of users to use its iPhone and Android apps, the majority of people visiting Facebook on their mobile phones today are doing so through the mobile web.
The company is throwing a lot of weight behind a Ringmark, a mobile browser test suite. The open-source project is attempting to set standards for how mobile apps access hardware and run on your phone, and give developers an idea of what mobile browsers their apps might run in.
In its blog post announcing Ringmark, Facebook claims it’s working on the project “in order to make the mobile web better.” That sentiment was echoed by Pearce at our lunch, when he said the project was helping Facebook discover “how can we help smaller developers realize mobile web as a option.” The project, however, could also help Facebook.
Facebook already has a pretty sizable amount of backers for Ringmark, including huge browser manufacturers, handset makers, and app developers. With platform launch partners like Mozilla, Nokia, AT&T, Adobe, Netflix, Microsoft and Zynga, Facebook has all right players in place to make it happen. And with Instagram, now it also has a popular app with a ton of users to bring over to the mobile web as well.
“Millions of people around the world love the Instagram app and the brand associated with it, and our goal is to help spread this app and brand to even more people.” Zuckerberg said in the announcement. Those additional people could potentially be those accessing the app via the mobile web.
What it all means
Integrated into Facebook, all those web-based apps could equal a ton of cash for the company — especially if it’s the one powering the HTML5 web store where all those apps will be sold.
Interesting to note: Neither Google or Apple have agreed to partner with Facebook on the project. Pearce said he couldn’t say why the two companies had declined to be part of the group. Both companies, however, do have huge app stores -– huge sources of revenue for them — that could be threatened by the success of a rival web-based app store.
Microsoft, currently trailing behind both companies in sales, is a part of the group. Developers currently shy away from creating apps specifically for Windows Phone. Web-based apps could come to Windows Phone the same time they arrive on iOS
There’s no denying that Facebook’s purchase of Instagram is part of a bigger picture. The company has eliminated its competition while gaining a team that has proven it can create a popular social app out of nothing. It will be interesting to see over the next weeks, months, and years how that purchase plays out and what Facebook decides to do with app, as well as the mobile web.
Why do you think Facebook bought Instagram? What do you think are Facebook’s mobile plans for the future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.