Like clockwork, every six months the blogs decide that Facebook is about to launch a “Facebook phone”, to compete with Apple or Google or somebody. Then the wider tech press catches on and we aere soon bombarded by stories about the “imminent launch” of said phone. Market observers speculate about the strategic importance of the device, Facebook’s advantage over Google, and the brilliance of the idea. Then when the ‘launch’ finally happens it turns out not to be a phone but some software – an app update or the latest ‘Home’ layer on top of Android.
In all the build-up to the Facebook event of the day, very people stop to think about whether Facebook can actually build a phone. As my friend Nathan Dintenfass says “Products are Hard”, hardware is hard. Facebook has no business in building a phone, and probably no interest in getting bogged down in supply chain, logistics, purchase commitments and device returns.
We wrote about this several years ago, after the first round of F-Phone rumors fizzled out. At the time, we said a far more likely strategy is for Facebook to find some way to make it easier for app developers to use Facebook’s core social platform. We suggested they build a set of tools that help developers do just that.
Today, Facebook acquired Parse, a company which provides back-end tools to make building mobile apps easier and facilitate tying those apps into other services.
We have followed Parse for some time. Like their peer Stack Mob, the company offers essentially a Platform as a Service (PaaS) where app developers can store their data and execute their code. In particular, Parse makes it easy to tie an app to other apps or software services such as design tools or outside APIs. For instance, allowing a news app to use Urban Airship’s notification service to alert users of some important event without having to plug the two companies’ servers together.
For us, the rationale behind Facebook’s purchase is very straightforward. While they have committed to maintaining Parse’s services and support for other platforms, it seems likely that the goal is plug Parse directly into Facebook. So if you are making a game app and you want to let users post high-scores on their Facebook feed, that option is available with a few lines of code. Facebook already provides some of this functionality, but having Parse in-house greatly accelerates their scale of integration possible.
In our view this goes a long way towards addressing criticism of Facebook’s mobile strategy. The gaming example above is just one possibility. Probably far more important will be the ability to tie app usage to Facebook’s advertising systems. Facebook will be able to capture further information on consumers’ app usage patterns. This is important data, especially in the hot-pay-to-install mobile ad market. We imagine that Facebook’s ambitions for Parse are far broader than just this portion of the ad stream.
Does this make Facebook more competitive with Android? No, not really. This is not an operating system that can appear on every phone. Does this purchase make Facebook more competitive with Google? Absolutely. In the bigger game of attracting Internet users’ attention and intentions, having Parse could be a big step forward.