Facebook’s Year in Mobile: Seeking Ubiquity on Devices, and in Apps Too

Central to the next era in Facebook’s growth, the company’s mobile team took a much more visible role this year with the launch of Places, deals with hundreds of carriers, and a bid to become an integral social layer for mobile experiences the way it is becoming on the web.

It more than doubled the number of mobile users from 100 million in February to 200 million in November. And mobile users are Facebook’s best customers, since they’re twice as active as others.

The team was just around 20 people at the end of 2009 but it’s since grown and become subdivided into different teams focused on native clients, the mobile platform (the “platmobile” team), partnerships and other stealth projects. The company also poached a capable head of mobile products from Google, Erick Tseng, who had shepherded the search giant’s first branded phone, the Nexus One, from conceptualization to launch in just under a year.

Facebook’s strategy this year could probably be broken down in three ways: 1) universal access to Facebook on all mobile devices 2) ubiquity of the Facebook platform in third-party mobile apps and 3) new features like location that take advantage of the unique capabilities of mobile phones.

Facebook Makes a Platform Play with Single Sign-on and More: Beyond standalone apps, the most important part of Facebook’s strategy is its effort to become embedded into every mobile experience the way it is becoming on the desktop web. A key part of that is single sign-on, which lets people log into Facebook once in an app, not every time they use it. This is the start of helping Facebook understand who uses which mobile apps, which could lead to an interesting social solution for app discovery — a problem plaguing developers.

The company launched fresh SDKs for iOS and Android this year, which make it easy for mobile developers to make calls to the new Graph API.

Facebook needs to successfully migrate with its biggest platform companies onto mobile devices or risk being left out of virtual goods and ad revenue. Zynga, Electronic Arts’ Playfish and Playdom, have been hungry for a way to diversify off the platform, where user acquisition costs have risen after the company crippled viral channels this year. Android and iOS present opportunities to lessen dependence on Facebook. Plus, smartphone market penetration is now large enough that there are seven and eight-digit Farmville-sized audiences to be had.

Reaching Out to the Developing World with ‘0’: Unlike smaller companies, which usually wrestle with the build-for-iPhone versus Android decision, Facebook must be accessible to all devices from the lowliest feature phone to the newest generation of Apple devices.

The company’s growth hinges upon it. Facebook went from 250 million to 500 million users in 12 months. But since crossing the half a billion user mark in July, the service has only grown by roughly 75 million users in a significant slowdown, according to InsideFacebook data. That’s because the low-hanging fruit in North America and Western Europe is largely gone. The company needs to be successful in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, where access to mobile broadband often outstrips fixed-line broadband access.

To bring users from developing countries on board, Facebook launched a free, low-bandwidth version of the site called ‘0’ in May with more than 50 carriers. Carriers use free access to Facebook to lure subscribers into paying for data plans, while Facebook uses the deals to grow in markets where phones are the primary access point to the web.

Although the company hasn’t released statistics on 0’s growth, Facebook’s fastest-growing markets over the last 12 months include India, the Philippines, Turkey and Indonesia — all countries where 0 was launched. South Korea and Russia, both strategic markets Mark Zuckerberg has mentioned and that the company secured mobile deals in over the past six months, have also more than quadrupled in 2010.

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