Facebook Gains Another Approach to Mobile Users


On 20 March, Snaptu announced that it had agreed to be acquired by Facebook. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed. Founded in 2007, Snaptu is a rapidly growing start-up that began life as Moblica.

Facebook has some 200 million mobile users out of a total of more than 500 million. They’re high-quality users, on average twice as active as desktop users. Mobile users are also extending the role of Facebook; our own surveys show that Facebook is increasingly popular for mobile messaging and chat.

Most of Facebook’s mobile users use it through an app on a smartphone. Their numbers will grow as smartphone sales increase and there are strong signs that developed economies will see a true mass market in smartphones as they get cheaper. With smartphones Facebook can be sure of addressing nearly the whole population in those markets over the coming years.

Facebook also offers mobile solutions for people who do not have a smartphone. At Mobile World Congress this year we saw Gemalto’s Facebook SIM. This provides a SIM application for any phone, enabling users to carry out common Facebook tasks in text-only format by SMS. We expect this will mainly serve the very low end of the device market.

Serving the middle ground, Facebook also has zero.facebook.com, a highly innovative text-only version of the site that some networks offer for free, and m.facebook.com, a mobile-optimised version of the site.

But those solutions don’t have the look, feel and features that make the smartphone app such an immersive experience. Wouldn’t it be good if Facebook could achieve this on feature phones?

That’s where Snaptu comes in. It offers a Java app, mainly for feature phones, into which various widgets can be downloaded. These widgets exist for Facebook, LinkedIn, Cricinfo, Mashable, Picasa, Twitter and many other sites. The widgets are free, but they have adverts in them.

The widgets behave like apps, presenting sites in a way that is similar to how they appear on a smartphone. The difference is that most of the work is done on Snaptu’s servers. This cuts down data traffic and costs, and improves performance, especially on 2.5G networks.

Of course, it’s not a new idea. Nokia had Widsets doing a similar job in 2006, and acquired Novarra to go further with this approach. However, Snaptu is highly successful, serving 2,500 different phone models and attracting 27 million users by early 2011.

Facebook launched its Snaptu app in mid-January 2011 and has now acquired the company. Facebook has said nothing about how it plans to use Snaptu, but I suspect it’s most interested in the client and server technologies and the advertising system, with the aim of taking its own app further on feature phones. It may also use the technology as one way of enabling Facebook applications like FarmVille within a mobile client — something it’s not done on any phone so far.

The acquisition looks like a good move from Facebook’s perspective, but other players and users may well have a different view. I don’t believe Facebook will be interested in continuing to provide a way for other Web services to have a presence on feature phones. Even if it is, the other companies may prefer not to have their feature-phone strategy controlled by Facebook. They’ll need to find a different way to support their services, and this might be an opportunity for Nokia with the Novarra browser, or a WAC application that does a similar job.

If that scenario plays out, then many Snaptu users will see the acquisition as value-destruction. Snaptu would then appear to have sold out to Facebook, leaving its users with a better Facebook app but forcing them to find another way to do all the other things they value on the mobile Web.