When Will Facebook Platform for Mobile Be Ready for Prime Time?

The Facebook Platform for Mobile has been around for some time, but many users and developers are barely aware of it. Ultimately, however, the limiting factors of mobile platform adoption are not lack of awareness or lack of functionality. Two other key reasons are more limiting:

  • First-time users have to jump through a number of hoops before being able to engage with mobile apps
  • The near-crippling of application SMS integration through a less-than-friendly permission granting system.

This unfortunately means that the Facebook Mobile Platform economy is struggling to grow. Most developers have not yet taken the time to build a mobile interface for their apps. The perception of lack of interest from Facebook doesn’t help, as is takes a long time for bugs in the mobile platform to be addressed (e.g. here). As a result, most mobile profile pages lack any applications.

Sign-On Issues

First, to get the mobile-only experience, users may need to remember to go to m.facebook.com (the mobile version of www.facebook.com). The www.facebook.com site will often serve the full version of the page instead of redirecting users correctly; that’s definitely less than ideal on a small interface and limited bandwidth. Facebook also recently started requiring JavaScript to log in, which turns more users away.

SMS Limitations

Facebook Mobile provides extensive text messaging functionality that applications can make use of (yes: you can build a Facebook application to send and receive text messages, for free), but this is the part where the user experience can be quite awful. First the user needs to enable their phone for SMS which, if all goes well, is no mean feat in itself.

The issue is complicated by the apparent limitation to specific carriers, especially depending on territory: the sum total in the UK is one (the o2 network). But, despite the off-putting lack of my provider in the drop-down, I entered my non-o2 mobile number and everything worked fine. I don’t know whether this is the case on all networks, but it’s worth a try.

Should an application wish to use SMS facilities in the API, the user needs to perform additional steps to enable mobile functionality on an application by application basis. This is certainly off-putting to the user, especially given the dead-end user journey that Facebook provides. It’s not incredibly difficult, but it’s one more point where users can drop off.

Looking Forward

Once you’re in, the functionality that Facebook provides within the mobile home page is quite good: it’s quick to use and has some core features (including status updates, pokes and messages). It’s also easy to use on a small screen.

Obviously not all applications are well suited for mobile, but plenty are. Gifting, poking, and all the basic friend interactions can be implemented easily. Whether we’ll see more complex mobile-specific applications growing or not will depend as much on how users start to really engage with the mobile web as it will on the growth in social networking.

The real pull for developers to work with mobile, though, would be to launch a micropayment system that doesn’t require the user to install anything, buy credit, or otherwise have to think about whether they will or won’t be using this particular piece of technology. Mobile technology is ready for this and a reverse-billing system with seamless application integration would surely be a revenue-generator for developers, Facebook, and the service provider.

The functionality offered by Facebook mobile is quite extensive, but country and network provider limitations and the poor user sign-on experience are big barriers. Until Facebook views mobile, and especially SMS, as an integral part of the Platform, user adoption is always going to be limited.