Quick Thoughts: Facebook’s Home Invasion, Twitter deals “Cards”

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–          Facebook Home subverts Google’s control over Android, replacing the lock and home screens with Facebook content and unifying device messaging under the always-on “Chat Heads” app.

–          Home is a very clever way to jump in front of Google, but gaining critical mass will be very difficult – distribution is narrow, execution must be perfect, and Google could retaliate if it is too successful.

–          To less fanfare, Twitter launched Cards, expanding the content that can be appended to tweets, including direct links into e-commerce apps, driving new advertising and transaction revenues.

–          Arguably, Twitter is further along in establishing mobile monetization – Home is a gambit in the right direction, but it is far from certain to be successful.

On first reflection, Facebook home is REALLY clever. I’ve written repeatedly that apps companies, such as Facebook, are subject to the whims of the platform owners – Google, Apple and maybe, Microsoft – which are free to cherry pick from amongst the most useful apps to integrate their own home-grown alternatives directly into their operating environments. Witness Apple’s poorly received landgrab against Google Maps, or the lawsuits that Google has drawn from the likes of Yelp and Expedia for favoring its own reviews and travel services. Mobile users strongly tend to use the default apps that are given to them, even if there are superior versions available a click away. Arguably, Google’s aggression with Android was in anticipation of its own fate in an all Apple iOS world, and not surprisingly, Jeff Bezos was also prescient enough to greenlight Amazon’s own forked version of Android for its Kindle tablets with home grown e-commerce apps front and center.

Facebook figured, correctly so IMHO, that it was too late to find takers for a fully forked alternative device operating system from amongst established device makers and that launching its own phones and tablets without the expertise to design them, make them or distribute them would be a colossal waste of money. Instead, Google’s user interface software engineers designed a “launcher”. A launcher is an app that replaces the lock screen and home screen provided with the Android OS with a customized alternative. In this case, the lock screen displays recent entries on the user’s Facebook news feed. The home screen, rather than revealing a few rows of your favorite apps with the Google Search bar ensconced in prime real estate at the top of the screen, is taken up entirely by Facebook apps and content. To get to the rest of your apps and that Google Search box, the user must select the app tray which returns to its hidden status once the offending non-Facebook app is closed. All the while, Facebook remains omnipresent via its proprietary notifications bar, which replaces the Android version, and includes the innovative “chat heads” app, which automatically aggregates text messages and emails with Facebook messaging and enables communications from the midst of almost any app. Facebook may not have “forked” Android, but users that adopt Home will be hard pressed to recognize their phones after the extreme makeover.

This is a bold gambit that turns the idea of platform dominance on its ear. For its users that roll with it, Facebook gets inside position vs. Google, gaining first-click advantage on integrating lucrative applications, co-opting the real estate to flood lock screens and home screens with advertising, and collecting a stream of location data to add to its social graph. Down the line, Facebook could make its Graph Search the default option for Home users, or even develop its own media players, maps and other proprietary default apps. Sounds good for Facebook, but several questions emerge.

First, as Whitey Bluestein (http://gigaom.com/2013/04/06/why-home-wont-move-the-needle-for-facebook/) points out on Gigaom that Facebook Home will only work on Android devices of a particularly recent vintage, won’t work at all on iPhones, Blackberries or Windows Phones, and requires users to find, download and install a particularly complicated app, which appears likely to be a constant and thirsty consumer of expensive wireless data bandwidth. Bluestein conjectures that a maximum 10 to 20% of Facebook’s 100M US mobile users will end up adopting Home, a figure that seems to be pretty darn optimistic once you go through his analysis. The numbers in international markets, where far fewer users have ponied up for the most recent high end smartphones and where data and power usage are tightly accounted for, would be considerably lower. While Facebook will undoubtedly address these issues, it limits the initial potential uptake.

Second, it may turn out that users are not universally delighted by an all-consuming Facebook presence on their phones. TechCrunch ( http://techcrunch.com/2013/04/05/this-facebook-phone-parody-actually-makes-some-good-points/) links to a humorous video to make this point. Given that Home fundamentally changes the operation of the device, users may not be inclined to forgive bugs or design flaws that disrupt their experience, raising the risk of poor word of mouth and of disgruntled users that will be permanently turned off to the concept. With reports suggesting that “Chat Heads”, the most intriguing part of Facebook Home functionality, may not be quite ready for the April 12 launch of the downloadable version, the execution risk may be a reason for considerable concern.

Finally, even though Google has been outwardly supportive of Home, Facebook seems to be walking close to the line of tolerance. Google could boot Home out of the Play store whenever it wanted. Less than a month ago, it yanked an entire category of apps that allowed users to automatically block ads on other apps resident on device. Any further attempt to marginalize Google Apps within Facebook Home, could easily provoke a similar response against 3rd party launchers. Facebook could still sell it directly to device makers and offer it to users willing to use the more complicated “side loading” method of downloading Android Apps directly from web sites rather than the Play store, but this would clearly limit its addressable market. It would seem that Google may be playing wait and see – if Home is not particularly successful, it is not a threat and nothing needs to be done, but if it gains momentum and hampers Google’s interests, then watch out.

All this makes me think that Home will be a good thing for Facebook, but not a great thing. True zealots will embrace the immersive experience, but the zeitgeist is shifting toward a more polyglot social networking universe and granting unfettered control of one’s mobile device to Facebook seems too big a commitment for the large majority of consumers. I’m still waiting for Zuckerberg and company to parse out the monolithic Facebook experience into more focused apps that require less obtrusive filtering and deliver context specific experiences – one app for recommended stories, one app for photo sharing, one app for social games, one app for 2nd screen TV, etc.. Such a move would reduce the need for heavy handed filtering, offer users a cleaner experience, and deliver advertisers more receptive audiences.

This brings us to Twitter, which had an announcement of its own last week. Unlike Facebook, Twitter’s core use case of time sensitive content delivery and discovery is inherently mobile and provides a clear context for advertisers. Historically, Twitter’s famous 140 character limit on posts in its newsfeed has been the primary impediment for the value of its sponsored tweets. This past June, Twitter introduced “Expanded Tweets”, a mechanism for embedding rich content like photos, link summaries, and video clips directly in a post – when a user clicks on a tweet, the app pulls up a “card” with the embedded material.

Last week, Twitter officially renamed this capability as “Cards” and announced three new varieties. The “App Card” lets developers show information about their Apps with links to go directly into the App Store or Google Play to install them. An App Card can also be used to prompt users to open linked content directly into the native app, or to download it if the app is not installed. The “Gallery Card” extends the photo card to provide a four picture preview of a linked gallery. Finally, the “Product Card” allows merchants to embed product information – a photo, a description and two attributes (price, availability, sizes, etc.) – along with a link to a commerce app where the product can be bought. Ostensibly, the product card could allow a link that puts the product into an electronic shopping cart and takes you right to checkout, but Twitter’s announcement does not make it clear.

Twitter Cards greatly enhance its attractiveness as a venue for mobile advertising, enabling content publishers to sustain their own apps and brands in partnership with Twitter, and facilitating easy sales conversions with the intriguing “Product Cards”. Importantly, accessing these cards requires the user to actively select a specific tweet, pre-qualifying the ad viewer and keeping the primary newsfeed experience clean and uncluttered despite the growing volume of advertising. At its announcement, Twitter revealed that it had already signed 2,000 active customers for its content-rich “Cards”, and suggested that the future could see hundreds of different types of Cards. Reputedly, Twitter generated more than $350M in 2012 advertising sales, with a 2014 goal to top $1B – if accurate, a seriously high double digit annual revenue growth trajectory. Twitter Cards would seem to be a great vehicle to keep them on track.

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