The mobile revolution in Africa is well documented, however mobile statistics are specifically impressive in the BRIC Nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China - as well as the likes of Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines. Many emerging markets have skipped the ‘desktop generation’ and are already mobile-first economies where mobile devices are more ubiquitous than either land-line telephones, PCs, or fixed Internet connections. Although research suggests that global smartphone shipments have overtaken those of feature phones recently, it is still the basic feature phone that dominates in emerging markets. Facebook has been quietly working on a project over the last 2 years to expand its user base of 1.1 billion and enable Facebook access on simple, feature phones.
The scheme is called ‘Facebook for Every Phone‘ and has reached 100m users. The stripped-down, minimum capacity version of Facebook is accessed through over 3,000 types of feature phone, some costing less than 20 dollars. Working with mobile operators, Facebook has encouraged them to allow users free or cheap access to this basic version of their product.
Why is Facebook doing this?
Although markets such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, India, Mexico and Vietnam are not currently lucrative advertising markets for the internet giant, they are some of the fastest growing markets for internet access and social networking, and Facebook is clearly eyeing up its next generation of customers and the potential ad revenue these markets will bring.
As Facebook subscription in the likes of the US reaches saturation point, many people see the next generation of customers from the developing world as Facebook’s greatest opportunity to increase its global market share. Although Facebook’s success in the mobile advertising market has been well documented, it is still like many struggling with the seismic shift in internet access from the PC to mobile devices. As the economies of emerging markets grow and its consumer class demands access to the same products and services as the developing world, they represent a lucrative market for the likes of Facebook. Indeed, research suggests that users who access the product through a feature phone are the most engaged users, representing another opportunity for advertisers. As the middle class in the developing world grows, so do their purse strings and Facebook is fully aware of this.
Facebook purchased an Israeli company called Snaptu, that had begun to produce basic versions of applications to allow users to access them on feature phones. Facebook, having originally discounted mobile Facebook access as simply a way to update a status as opposed to the full service, saw a massive opportunity here. The Snaptu team began to re-engineer Facebook’s software to reduce its capacity and allow it to run off minimal data requirements. Facebook for Every Phone includes all the phones most popular features, including News Feed, Messenger and Photos, and is optimized to use less data than other Java apps and mobile sites.
Despite the obvious benefits access to Facebook brings many people in the developing world, there is a danger that users see Facebook as the entire internet, instead of just a small part of it. As powerful internet giants such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google continue to see emerging markets as a priority, there should be a limit to their influence allowing home-grown developers and mobile applications to launch and thrive in the developing world.