Facebook doesn’t own a mobile operating system, and that’s a problem. Developers don’t need Facebook to build apps, and it doesn’t get a 30 percent cut of payments. But today Facebook acquired Parse, and while it’s not an OS, it’s the next best thing. The mobile-backend-as-a-service could keep Facebook top-of-mind for developers when they pick an identity provider, integrate sharing, and buy ads.
If you wanted to make a leap of faith, you could speculate that Parse (read our full story on the acquisition) could become the plug-and-play backend of a Facebook mobile OS focused on making things easy for developers. That’s not out of the question far down the road, and is bolstered by Facebook’s recent acqhire of the Pieceable team who had built mobile app development and in-browser preview platform.
But building its own formal OS would go against a core tenet of Facebook’s mobile strategy — being a social layer that rides on top of iOS and Android, rather than a direct competitor.
Starting a completely new operating system would be a massive, risky bet for Facebook. It’d be expensive and draining for a relatively little company compared to Apple, Google and Amazon. Getting developers to build another version of their apps for a set of Facebook OS devices that doesn’t have traction could be a tough sell. Again, not impossible in a few years, but a serious gamble anytime soon. But for now Parse will help Facebook get closer to developers.
The “Everything But An OS” Strategy
Facebook is on a mission to get as much of the value of owning an OS as possible without actually building one. Mark Zuckerberg has explained that he only wants to build things that can benefit big chunks of its user base. That’s why it didn’t manufacture its own phone, and that’s why it hasn’t made apps that require a forked version of Android. When you have a billion users, building something with a potential to reach only 20 million of them just isn’t big enough. Facebook wants to make the world more open and connected, not just a chunk of it.
We saw one prong of this strategy with the launch of Facebook Home. It wanted to be the first thing people saw and the most frequent thing people did on their phones, but without too much resource expenditure or having to start an app store from scratch. So it built a homescreen/launcher replacement app that could run on a standard version of Android.
Another component is Open Graph. It makes it simple to add Facebook sharing capabilities to any app. It may not have the native sharing built in at the OS level, but it can still get content flowing into the news feed that it can put ads next to. And it is baked into iOS 6 at the OS level thanks to a partnership with Apple — also a part of the strategy.
Facebook might not earn a 30 percent cut when you download an app from Google Play or the App Store, but it does make money when you discover which app to actually download through its new mobile app install ads. Those stores are now cluttered with hundreds of thousands of apps, and until a developer climbs on the charts it’s hard to get found. So Facebook is aggressively positioning itself as the paid gateway to app discovery as an alternative to having its own app marketplace.
Parse Unites Facebook’s Dev Package
So Facebook has all these parallel universe parts of a mobile OS. Now Parse will tie them all together. Facebook’s Director Of Product Management Doug Purdy called it the third pillar of the Facebook Platform, but to me it also feels like a doorway to the first two pillars of identity and ads. Facebook will continue operating the backend solution, which currently serves over 60,000 apps. Now they’ll be paying their monthly subscription fees straight to Facebook. So base-level, Facebook is making more money from developers, while also helping to get more great apps built.
Then, just by the nature of using a Facebook-branded product, developers may be more likely to use the rest of the Not-FbOS stack, such as relying on it as an identity provider which strengthens the need for a Facebook account among users. They might build in more sharing hooks that deliver ad-monetizable content to the news feed. And it might encourage them to consider buying Facebook install ads to get their app downloaded. The strategy of getting tighter with developers is a popular one right now, considering Twitter’s recent purchase of Crashlytics.
While many developers immediately fretted that Facebook would meddle with the service, Purdy tells me its plan isn’t to mess with what works. You might be skeptical, but Facebook surprised the world this last year by not screwing around with Instagram. That won’t necessarily stop some developers from ditching Parse because they don’t want Facebook’s eyes on its data.
Still, Parse creates a powerful synergistic vector from which to promote the rest of Facebook’s platform services. Eventually, I suspect Facebook will feature its own services a bit more within Parse. Perhaps that means even easier integration of identity and sharing for Parse-backed apps. Or Parse developers could get free credits for app install ads that could get them hooked on the traction booster.
The concept of a more complete and unified suite of platform services should excite investors, and having such a stable of great mobile talent around clearly enticed Parse’s founders.
Being too dependent on the desktop was a huge mistake for Facebook. It had to spend a billion dollars to kill the threat of Instagram and turn it into an asset. Now we’ll see if throwing everything but the kitchen operating system at mobile is enough, or whether Facebook will remain a second-class citizen on the small screen.
[Image Credit: AppleInsider]