Facebook, currently in a quiet period as it prepares for its IPO, is stone-cold silent on whether it really will ever launch a mobile device, and whether it plans to launch mobile advertising to complement its main revenue driver on desktops.
But that does not mean it is sitting still on mobile — the company’s biggest area of growth at the moment.
In an interview today in Barcelona with TechCrunch after a keynote appearance, Facebook’s CTO, Bret Taylor, described how the social network is taking privacy seriously on mobile, an incendiary issue that only yesterday got flamed once again, and also about how developers were behind its move toward carrier billing.
As we saw in Facebook’s S-1, mobile is a massive business for Facebook, with 425 million people accessing the social network on mobile devices, and that business growing faster than the company’s web business. Taylor noted today that it took Facebook eight years to get 145 million desktop users, but only four to reach 425 million on mobile.
But it has, at times, been hard for Facebook to keep up with its growth in the area of privacy, and that has attracted the attention of regulators in both the U.S. and abroad. In mobile, the situation seems to be even more of an issue, because of the personal nature of mobile handsets and the fact that, for most of us, they with us at all times.
Taylor tells us that the company is working hard to make sure that whatever it does, mobile privacy settings are exactly the same as what is offered on the desktop.
“Our goal is to make our privacy settings as accessible on all devices as possible,” he said. “The move we’ve gone towards in mobile is per object privacy,” he said. “It needs to be just as easy on the mobile as it is on the web.”
He notes that the converse of that — upsetting even small groups of users — can be an issue for a company the size of Facebook. “Everything is statistically significant when you have 850 million users,” he noted. “Even with small percentages it can be a meaningful number.”
More services. Facebook has been gradually adding enhancements to what it does on mobile, from check-ins, to deals and now the area of apps. The move to offer mobile payments will be another step in this direction.
Taylor confirmed to TC that it is Bango that it will be using for the service — Facebook announced a deal with the carrier billing company earlier this year — but he told us that there will be others involved, too.
The key thing, he said, is that the move to a carrier billing — where a purchase of Facebook Credits, for example, will go straight to your mobile bill — will become seamless. “It’s just one step, and really the right user experience,” he said.
But the mobile billing service, he noted, was not just something borne out of Facebook’s desire to make money — and indeed in the S-1 it’s clear that the amount of revenue Facebook gets from Credits is tiny compared to advertising. Rather, as with the Apple App Store, payments was something driven by Facebook’s developers.
“It’s about making the mobile web an easier platform for developers,” he said. “Despite the mindshare that iOS and Android have, our mobile web interface is bigger than iOS and Android combined.”
He said Facebook has been encouraging developers to make their mobile web apps work on Facebook. “If you make your mobile web app work on Facebook, we’ll drive traffic,” he promised them. But their answer was: No, because it’s too hard for us to make any money there. And the user experience isn’t good enough. Payments, he said, will be “a key attribute to getting value out of those mobile web apps.”
However, will that be something available for all Facebook users?
As Taylor pointed out today, there are some 2,500 different types of devices accessing the Facebook platform at the moment.
And while smartphone users are checking in at their local cafe, in India the experience is significantly more basic, for now at least: he said that there, the most popular activity on Facebook on mobile has been signing in and making friend requests.
And there are many variations between those two experiences that are equally different. That speaks to a kind of fragmentation that makes Android look like one big happy family.
Facebook seems to be all too aware of that and is trying to take charge with its standards groups. Whether that will translate into any effective policies remains to be seen. That could impact how the company eventually brings all those users together to monetize the critical mass.