Facebook’s Mobile Platform Ambitions Come As Messaging Apps Gain Traction With Youth

Facebook is making an announcement this Thursday, and our own Josh Constine reports that at this event we’ll see the company unveil its own slightly tweaked flavor of Android, to power select HTC smartphones. But why would the company do that, and why now? A new report from Reuter provides very good motivation: Facebook sees a potential threat in the growing success of mobile-first messaging platforms that make the social networking experience more about conversation and less about broadcasts.

In the article, Reuters flags a number of successful mobile-first startups and companies that have managed to attract a very sizeable user base, and which it claims are especially popular among a younger demographic, including KakaoTalk, LINE, WeChat, Kik and WhatsApp. These apps mostly seem to succeed by focusing on brief one-to-one or group communication, with provisions that also allow for direct sharing of media like YouTube clips, audio and games, where Facebook and other web-based social networks before it have emphasized one-to-many broadcasts, and a less direct model of social interaction.

Facebook has obviously seen the effect of this shift, and has altered its product to try to anticipate or react to it, with moves like the Beluga purchase in 2011, which led to the launch of Facebook Messenger. It also built a Snapchat clone, over the course of just a few days, in a move that seemed to be little more than a display of power: the big dog saying essentially, ‘if this is what people want, we can do that too, and without breaking a sweat.’

But there’s reason to suggest Facebook is sweating. The Reuters piece cites Kik’s recent introduction of Kik Cards, a means for sharing content on the messaging platform quickly and easily, and most importantly, without cluttering the core experience. I spoke with Kik founder Ted Livingston twice about Kik Cards, once before their launch and once shortly after, and he agreed with me that there’s a huge opportunity out there for someone like Kik or another mobile-native startup to take things further and become a full-fledged mobile-first social network, possibly even one to usurp Facebook’s dominant position.

Kik has 40 million users, however, and event WeChat’s 400 million users is a far cry from Facebook’s more than 1 billion monthly active users, 680 million of which are active on mobile. Others like LINE and KakaoTalk, which have been primarily successful in Asia so far, still only have 120 million and 80 million users respectively. Point being, according to the numbers in black and white, Facebook still has an immense lead on its mobile competitors, and one that isn’t likely to suffer a huge reversal in the immediate future.

But Facebook’s Thursday announcement (which is where it tellingly directed Reuters when the pub sought comment for its story today) suggests that even if its crown isn’t under immediate threat, the company is thinking hard about how to woo mobile users in a meaningful and lasting way. Building Facebook DNA into the very core of the OS could be a good way to do that, and one that others might find hard to replicate owing to Facebook’s stronger influence. The bottom line is that Facebook is looking ahead to anticipate a time when it might not be in a position of power, and a strike at the young, mobile demographic right where they feel most at home could help considerably in avoiding that future.