Mike Isaac

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“Mobile First”: Product Chief Chris Cox and Facebook Brass Make the Phone a Top Priority

Of all the many tech maxims that exist, this is the one heard ad nauseum: “The future is in mobile.” In essence, it means that if your company doesn’t have a mobile device strategy, you aren’t doing it right.

Yet it was five months ago, on February 1, that the term rang truer than it ever had before. The wake-up call came from a line in Facebook’s freshly filed S-1, under the company’s risk factors section.

It stated that nearly half of Facebook’s 900-million-plus monthly active users visit the site via mobile devices, “although such usage,” the document reads, “does not currently directly generate any meaningful revenue.”

Facebook knows the writing is on the wall. And in order to prepare, Facebook is in the midst of a sweeping companywide shift to a “mobile first” strategy, with the marching orders trickling down from the very top tiers of management.

Chris Cox, VP of Product.

“We’re nearing a point where absolutely no one can present a new product concept without a mobile mock-up,” VP of Product Chris Cox told me during a recent interview — the first since the company’s IPO — at Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters. The mandate, Cox told me, comes straight from CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself.

It is a dramatic sea change for the social giant, a company that from its launch in 2004 rose to prominence on the backs of millions of PCs. Until relatively recently, emphasis was focused on the desktop interface, classically the primary portal for members to access the site. This made sense for years for virtually every successful Web site, given the limited browsing capabilities of early Internet-connected mobile phones like the BlackBerry or Palm devices.

In a way, it seemed Facebook had somewhat deprioritized mobile with its commitment to HTML5, a set of Web protocols championed by many tech giants — including Google and other big names — as the next evolution of the Web.

But as the years passed, smarter mobile devices proliferated, while the price floor sank on low-cost “feature phones” that spread across the globe. Asia, Africa and other developing countries could access Facebook via the cheaper devices. Simultaneously, the advent and subsequent rise of the iPhone and Android, coupled with cheap high-speed data connections, gave most of the developed world instantaneous access to any Web site at any time. And, no longer chained to our desktops, access we did.

So, as Facebook VP of Partnerships Dan Rose put it at a recent investor conference, Facebook’s “first pivot” is indeed going “mobile first.”

Staffer Shake-up

The shift comes with what seems a disconcerting omen: Not more than a month after Facebook went public, CTO Bret Taylor announced his planned departure from the company to go work on his own start-up. Admired among his peers in the valley, the loss of the high-profile executive who was charged with leading both Facebook’s mobile and platform efforts looks to be a blow for a company that aims to dive headlong into mobile.

Facebook’s exiting CTO Bret Taylor.

However, with a fresh shuffling of certain key high-level staff and a new management strategy, Taylor’s exit may not be as damaging to Facebook’s mobile prospects as one might think.

Two team members will step in to fill Taylor’s shoes immediately: Mike Vernal, a Facebook vet of four years responsible for work on Facebook Connect and Open Graph, will become head of platform; Cory Ondrejka, formerly of Linden Lab and an SVP at EMI, will lead mobile as director of engineering.

Rather than have one specific department that builds all mobile components, Facebook is taking a more decentralized approach, with each product division working on projects that have mobile components to them.

“Our Photos team actually built the Camera app,” Cox told me, referring to the standalone Facebook application that lets users browse through their friends’ photo streams. “Our Messages team actually built the Messenger app,” he said.

Facebook is also placing certain valuable members of its staff on high-priority projects. Last week, for instance, longtime Facebook product engineering manager Andrew Bosworth told me he was taking on a whole new set of responsibilities going forward, becoming acting head of Facebook’s mobile monetization efforts.

Andrew “Boz” Bosworth.

Bosworth — best known as “Boz” — has been with the company since 2006, and is responsible for creating News Feed, a number of early anti-abuse systems, and Facebook’s “Bootcamp” training program, a six-week crash course in company culture and logistics that all new engineers are required to take. He’s an important figure in the company; putting him in charge of making money from mobile is a definite statement that Facebook is focusing its top people on its biggest problem areas.

Even for those who aren’t top brass, there is significant room for internal movement among departments. Dirk Stoop, for instance, first started working for Facebook in the design and user-experience department, after his company Sofa was acquired in 2011. After working for a while under design director Kate Aronowitz, Stoop moved over to the Photos team full-time, eventually rising to become the lead product manager on the photo app, Camera.

The Future

It’s unclear what the first fruits of the newly realigned Facebook will be, though it’s a safe bet we’ll first see them in mobile improvements.

One long-overdue improvement still looms: An updated version of Facebook’s native smartphone apps. Despite being the most-installed application on smartphones the world around, Facebook’s current mobile iPhone and Android apps are embarrassingly sluggish and unresponsive, in dire need of a revamp.

Fortunately, I’ve heard that we’re not far from a refresh of Facebook’s iOS app, according to three people familiar with the project, which will bring an app that looks exactly the same, but responds exponentially faster than the current version.

Nick Bilton of the New York Times has played with the new app, and attests to this. Bilton says the soon-to-be-scrapped app was mostly built with HTML5 components — an approach strongly supported by Taylor — while the new app was written primarily in Objective-C, i.e. iOS’s native language. It’s indicative, again, of Facebook’s prioritization of mobile performance, optimizing the apps that people use all the time.

There’s also the looming integration of Instagram, the billion-dollar mobile app that Facebook is in the process of acquiring (after it clears the FTC, of course). Though the future of a post-acquisition Instagram is unclear, the 50-million-plus mobile photo users Facebook will add to its masses will be a big win for the company.

And, of course, there is “Buffy,” Facebook’s secret in-house project aimed at creating a proper Facebook phone. It’s unclear, now that Taylor is on his way out, who will spearhead that project.

Will all of Facebook’s new mobile shifting pay off? Lucky for us, we won’t have to speculate for long: The company’s first quarterly earnings call is slated for the end of the month.

(Lead photo courtesy of Da Pu Qiao/Flickr)

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