Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

How Facebook Could Actually Counter Apple’s Mobile Platform: Discovery and Retention

In recent weeks, details have emerged about Facebook’s designs to become a mobile app platform.

Part of the rationale behind Facebook building an HTML5-driven experience for other people’s apps was supposedly “to use Apple’s own devices against them to break the stranglehold they have on mobile app distribution.”

That can’t be right, because the point of HTML5 is that it works on any compatible browser, and not just Safari.

And while HTML5 is coming along, it still doesn’t rival the power of native apps, especially on Apple’s integrated hardware and software platform.

In fact, the more that I thought about it, and the more I spoke with mobile app developers, I realized there is a nugget of powerful compatibility between Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps that’s being glossed over, and it’s not about HTML5.

Instead, it’s where Apple — and to an even greater extent Google’s Android — has largely failed: Helping users find new apps and keep using them.

Indeed, two of the biggest problems mobile app developers have are discovery and retention, which is exactly what Facebook and Twitter can help them with.

(In a related arena, Facebook Credits can presumably even help out with the third big problem: Monetization.)

It all became more clear to me at an event last week where Kleiner Perkins invited speakers such as Scott Forstall of Apple to a summit of portfolio companies in the venture firm’s app-focused iFund.

At the close of the gathering, reporters were invited to mingle with iFund CEOs and Kleiner partner Matt Murphy (pictured right), who made a few comments worth considering.

For instance:

“Probably one of the biggest surprises so far is that apps haven’t really been that social or that viral. So if you look at how things have exploded on Facebook, it’s because of all the notifications and a messaging system that worked. And Facebook Connect for mobile hasn’t allowed that — I can’t invite you to join me through an app, for example, and I think Facebook’s working on that. And I think Twitter [integration] now allows me to broadcast to everybody that ‘Hey, you should check out that app.'”

Murphy also admitted his iFund portfolio companies were feeling the burn of Apple’s revised stance on pay-per-install promotions a la Tapjoy, which were pervasively used to bump apps up the iOS charts.

Said Murphy: “A lot of [the iFund start-ups] were using them. But I understand Apple’s position that it was too much around chart manipulation.”

He added that his hope is that the tools coming from Twitter and Facebook are more powerful than gaming the system.

For now, Murphy’s intuition is that Apple does not want to offer social app discovery itself.

“I don’t think they want to create a quasi-social network. But there is uniform demand [among iFund companies] to somehow let people know what apps their friends have and what apps their friends really care about,” he said. “What would be great is if I knew what were your top five apps, which do you use the most, and what’s still missing.”

Murphy tried not to say it explicitly, but he returned to the premise that Facebook will help with this exact problem.

“Facebook will be offering … rumored, possibly … messaging and true invites,” he said.

Messaging and true invites? That sounds like retention and discovery, right there.

I asked Scott Lahman, who is CEO of iFund company Gogii, which makes the textPlus app, to conceptualize how Facebook could help him with discovery and retention.

Here’s what Lahman (pictured left) said:

“Discovery and retention are what I spend most of my time on. In fact, I generally broaden it to three categories — discovery, virality and retention. Discovery doesn’t have to be viral — Genius, Netflix collaborative filtering, seeing your friend’s apps in Game Center, seeing your friend’s queue on Netflix, store merchandising. Facebook could offer discovery tools simply by adding “My Apps” to profiles or even including apps as objects in Open Graph one day.

“Virality, of course, could be a home run on Facebook. It’s funny that the Facebook mobile platform doesn’t support invites yet, so it’s a huge untapped opportunity. The only mechanism that mechanically works today on Facebook is using wall posts — but that’s a violation and Facebook turns people off all the time for doing that. Bottom line, a quality platform that nails discovery and virality could be competitive with anyone.”

To be sure, Facebook has a long and troubled history with the viral tools it has offered developers on its Web site and through its plug-ins. The social network has made countless tweaks to its developer policies, and said it reduced platform spam by 95 percent last year. But it also continues to offend developers by making changes that seem capricious.

But virality and spam are really two sides of the same coin. In order to give mobile apps distribution, Facebook probably has to keep the reins looser.

Meanwhile, Apple already chose a social distribution partner, and it is Twitter. Details of their upcoming integration are already public. When I spoke with Twitter’s Director of Platform Ryan Sarver, he made a point of emphasizing that Twitter could help app developers get more users.

Said Sarver:

“We really hope to drive tons and tons of app downloads. We think that’s really important. Apps may help in building Twitter, but we want to drive their user acquisition as well. We think there’s a really huge opportunity to be the second biggest driver of downloads next to the App Store, just because that social layer adds a whole new discovery channel. We think it’s going to increase this virtuous cycle between sharing great content, seeing where it was created, and then having users go download that app.”

What it comes down to is, Facebook’s imagined or real designs to compete with Apple aren’t realistically about HTML5.

Instead, Facebook should do what it does best: Connect people.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus