A fascinating article by Eric Jackson appeared on the Forbes website last week. Jackson questions the long-term viability of both Facebook and Google as we move beyond the old vision of the desktop web to a world dominated by mobile devices. Let’s call this new world Mobile 3.0 just to have a point of reference. Look at Mobile 1.0 as the cell phone in its original incarnation, a device that supplemented and eventually replaced the wired home phone, as the primary device for voice communications. Mobile 2.0 introduced texting, first in Europe and then in the rest of the world, and made asynchronous conversations possible. Mobile 2.0 added the mobile web but usage was limited by the hardware of the time and by poorly designed operating systems like Symbian.
Mobile 3.0 arrived with the iPhone and the subsequent App Store release. With the touch interface and its companion finger-friendly web browser, and with the native apps that were easy to find and use, mobile devices transformed from simple one-to-one communications devices to an all-purpose method of accessing information (content), social networking, and – well, almost everything. With apps that can both purchase and record sales, Mobile 3.0 has even begun to replace the wallet.
Just like the web transitions, mobile transitions have left a junkyard of failures, from efforts as big as Sony Ericsson and maybe even Nokia, to the lesser known aggregators of ringtones and wallpapers.
Jackson’s Forbes article points out that Web 1.0 companies had trouble getting to Web 2.0. What he doesn’t mention is how many pre-web companies had trouble getting to Web 1.0. This is an even better model for why Facebook and Google are going to fail the transition from Web 2.0 to Mobile 3.0 than the 1.0 to 2.0 failures. It’s a total head switch, not just an upgrade. Just look at the bookstore chains and the catalog merchants to see how devastating it’s been to miss the boat.
A good example for Google and Facebook is Yahoo!. Not just because it’s failing now, but because it spotted mobile early, hired people who understood it and put together programs that should have been effective, but didn’t make mobile part of its DNA. Mobile people were more likely to be perceived as outliers rather than insiders driving the next generation. Despite the best efforts of highly capable people on a number of teams, Yahoo! just never saw the importance of mobile to their future. And despite being ahead of Google in mobile programs through the mid-2000s, they stuck with a core built on the old web. If Yahoo! had only seen that mobile was going to be more important than even Web 2.0, they would be in a better position than Google today for Mobile 3.0.
And that’s what Google and Facebook need to address to survive, as Jackson points out in his Forbes article. Mobile has to be the core of their business, not something tacked on. Users see mobile devices as an extension of their daily life, and the device has to deliver.
Google needs to re-architect search for the mobile user. It needs to be voice-driven and visually delivered. Every search needs to use location information. And searches should adapt to the user’s history. Why are these attributes important? Search on the phone needs to deliver better results more quickly than on a desktop. Users can’t scan fifty results on five pages on the phone without getting frustrated. And visual search results let them select much more quickly. Then there’s revenue – mobile advertising has been implemented in a 0.5 manner and isn’t paying the bills. Mobile advertising needs to be completely re-thought, in a way that provides results to someone other than mobile advertising company founders. This will be the topic of a post here in the next two weeks.
And then there’s Facebook. While many users access Facebook on their phones, it’s difficult to find anyone who says it’s a good experience. Facebook is infinitely better on the desktop, and given the complaints about that experience, it’s not saying much for mobile. Just look at the big user-directed initiative of the last six months – Timeline. Timeline has zero benefit for mobile users, and there is a lot of resistance from desktop users, many of whom find Timeline reminiscent of MySpace. Instead of Timeline, why didn’t Facebook re-think the mobile profile experience? Why is it dreary and useless to look at people’s profiles on Facebook? Does it really have to be this way? Facebook came out with a messaging app, which seemed like a great idea, but it is actually less useful than the messaging instead the full Facebook app. I stopped using it after a few weeks of trying to like it.
These are just the most obvious indicators that Google and Facebook haven’t begun to make the mobile experience central to their strategies. And they show that mobile is still a bolt-on. They are where Yahoo! was in 2005. And unless that changes quickly, high stock prices and big IPOs aren’t going to keep them from being the next AltaVista and MySpace.