Mike Isaac

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For Social Networks, Dumbphones Still Hold Keys to Growth

Facebookfeaturephone-148x300Just because smartphones are eating the world doesn’t mean that Internet companies can forget about that “dumb” set of mobile devices.

Of course, I’m speaking of low-cost, reduced-functionality phones — dumbphones, for short. And here’s a prime example: In a blog post on its site Monday morning, Facebook noted that its dumbphone-targeted program, “Facebook for Every Phone,” reached 100 million people using the app every month.

The program, which is capable of running on more than 3,000 different types of mobile phones, is essentially a stripped-down Facebook app for relatively low-cost devices (usually the sub-$100 category). “Facebook for Every Phone” has been an initiative for the social giant since 2011, when the company first introduced the service.

It’s a way to cater to basically everwhere that isn’t the United States, Europe and Canada, three parts of the world where smartphone sales have soared, and where many rely on Facebook’s highly popular iOS and Android apps. Markets like the Americas and parts of Asia and Africa are key potential growth areas for social networks — and they also happen to be locations which still see some of the highest demand for low-cost feature phones.

It’s not just Facebook doing this sort of thing. Twitter continues to push mobile Web development for its platform, making the service available to those with mobile data connections. And earlier this year the microblogging service secured an agreement with the largest cellular provider in Pakistan which let users tweet for free without incurring cellular data costs.

facebook phoneMore recently, Foursquare inked a deal with Nokia to distribute the startup’s check-in app preinstalled on a number of Nokia’s low-end phones, including the massively popular Asha series. (Facebook, too, made a similar deal with Nokia regarding Asha phones.)

The point isn’t immediately about boosting revenue. Facebook isn’t raking in massive amounts of cash from those accessing the site on “Facebook for Every Phone,” nor are Twitter or Foursquare likely seeing great returns in their efforts in developing countries.

It’s about reaching the folks for whom Facebook, Twitter and other U.S.-based Internet companies aren’t the de facto social networks of choice. Asia, South America and other countries are already home to a number of popular social networks — China’s Tencent boasts the Twitter-like Weibo service, while mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp, Line and KakaoTalk are blowing up overseas, as well. So, for now, the thought goes, putting the service in front of international consumers is good enough — the money will come later.

Moreover, if Facebook, Twitter and the like can effectively invade the developing world via dumbphone today, they’ll already be on the ground 10 years from now when the cost of today’s technology has come down and smartphones become more prevalent in the rest of the world. By then, perhaps Facebook will see traction in its “Home” platform (at least, if the company can work out all the kinks).

That won’t happen overnight, which means the low-end cellular market is here to stay for some time. Expect the big players in social to keep catering to it.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work