Will Facebook Soon Become a Major Distributor of Mobile Games?

homescreen facebook iphoneA traditional challenge for mobile game developers is figuring out how to get in front of users. Facebook’s announcement today about Connect for Mobile Web points to how the company could help solve that problem.

One way would be for Facebook to use its own mobile applications to advertise third-party applications that use Connect. By creating a channel for mobile games and other applications within its own mobile app interface, the company could help drive more users to developers — and in turn, make its own apps more central to how people use mobile devices.

Another way would be for device manufacturers and carriers to build similar channels on their own, showing top games and other apps that use Facebook within their own app stores and device interfaces. For example, Nokia could build a special channel within its own Facebook application to show off other Ovi apps that integrate Facebook Connect. Or imagine seeing updates from friends about the latest games that they’re playing whenever you open your phone.

We’ve already looked at the app-channel idea for Facebook’s iPhone app. Facebook already has one of the most popular apps for the iPhone, and it lets you use core features of Facebook’s main site — but it doesn’t have a place for third-party Facebook applications or iPhone applications that use Facebook Connect. Facebook could add a new option to its iPhone app interface, showing iPhone-Connect games that a user’s friends are playing, or that are especially popular with other Facebook-iPhone users. It would be a sort of Facebook app directory like what the social network already has on its web site, but just for the iPhone.

The underlying problem, of course, is that mobile devices have not historically allowed developers easy access to users. Carriers have typically cut deals with only handfuls of developers, to pre-load only a few applications on devices. Some platforms, like Symbian, have been around for years, but have restricted what developers could do. Apple’s iTunes App Store changed that, proving to the industry that users wanted to be able to choose from a wide variety of applications on their own. While the App Store is regularly and quite appropriately criticized for its restrictive and quirky app approval process, at least it successfully connects thousands of developers with millions of users. However, there are now so many applications for the iPhone that developers are having a hard time getting discovered. Third parties have already started creating their own distribution channels to address this problem: See SGN’s cross-network game promotions or platforms such as OpenFeint or Scoreloop for more.

Other companies, like Nokia, have meanwhile launched their own app stores, but so far none have proved nearly as successful as Apple’s.

This week, Facebook and Nokia announced an application for the manufacturer’s N97 model of phones, available through Nokia’s Ovi app store. Facebook could potentially feature gaming applications for Ovi that use Connect within this application’s interface, although the application was developed in-house by Nokia so that company would need to take the lead on such a move. Considering that Nokia wants Ovi to become a serious competitor to iTunes, it should think seriously about this idea — or at least some way of using Facebook data to help users find new games that they might want to play. It could also, for example, feature apps that use Facebook Connect within the Ovi home site.

Facebook applications are available for phones from INQ, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola, Palm, RIM, Samsung and Sony Ericsson, the T-Mobile Sidekick, as well as phones powered by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. The social network could potentially create mobile app distribution channels for all of these phones.

facebook mobile apps

So where is Facebook at now with this idea? It currently includes “mobile” as a category of apps in its app directory — click on the tab and you can see a generic selection of “mobile” games, but that’s it at the moment. However, on a conference panel in July, SGN chief executive Shervin Pishevar broached the idea of an iPhone app tab or channel of some sort, where users could bookmark and save iPhone apps, see app alerts, notifications, and more. At the time, Facebook mobile head Henri Moissinac said the company was looking into the idea. Facebook has since introduced a new version of its iPhone app, but it has limited app integration. Users can see notifications from applications on Facebook’s web site, but clicking through takes users to open up the app in a web browser. App invites are not currently available. And there is no customization to help Facebook users find more iPhone games.

To be fair, Facebook’s mobile team is busy with more immediate projects. The company works with more than 150 carriers in more than 50 different countries, and its first goal is to try to make Facebook itself as broadly accessible as possible. The release of Facebook Connect for Mobile Web affirms this focus, as it will let mobile web sites and apps share information back and forth with Facebook through just a few easy-to-add lines of code.

So, it may be that manufacturers and carriers themselves could take the lead on using Facebook data to help users find more games and other apps on their devices.