Facebook Zero: Connecting the World

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

As Facebook is looking for growth it increasingly turns to Africa, India and the Middle East. These are about the only places left with vast markets and a pent-up demand for the services of the social network. Elsewhere on earth there is precious little room for growth left since most of those who had wanted to join the Facebook experience have already done so while the holdouts aren’t likely to ever be convinced to sign up.

Facebook sees the relatively low penetration of smartphones in the developing world (26% in 2012) as an opportunity rather than a hurdle. Earlier this year the company launched Facebook Zero. It did so in near total silence.

Facebook Zero is squarely aimed at users with less capable “feature phones” and slow Internet connections. The new service is optimized for speed while still offering most of Facebook’s features. Facebook Zero users can write on their friends’ walls, update their status, comment on posts, send messages and reply to them.

“It’s a classical win-win scenario that will see Facebook reach deeper in areas previously off-limits to the company.”

Through deals with over 50 mobile operators in 45 countries, Facebook has succeeded in doing away with data charges removing one of the biggest obstacles to its growth in the developing world. Program manager Sid Murlidhar says that Facebook Zero is so light weight that it will not burden mobile networks that may already be strained. “It’s a classical win-win scenario that will see Facebook reach deeper in areas previously off-limits to the company.”

The company has also teamed-up with phone maker Nokia to offer a $99 feature phone that includes free Facebook access. This device is being marketed through the Indian carrier Bharti Airtel which is a major player on the sub-continent and in much of Africa.

Facebook Zero fits in nicely with the company’s mantra of “Growth at All Cost”. In fact, the new service aims to contribute significantly to Facebook’s stated aim to become the world’s premier gateway to the Internet. Users of Facebook Zero will soon enough equate their experience with the social network to being on the Net.

In more developed markets this goal could be attained with Facebook Home; an app that integrates Facebook with most every aspect of the Android operating system that runs smartphones and tablets.

One out of eight mobile users accessing Facebook does so from a feature phone (as opposed to a smartphone). Among the 3,000 or so models available are Facebook capable phones that cost as little as $20. According to Javier Olivan, who heads Facebook’s Growth Team, the fastest growing market are today found in Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam and India: “In these countries not everyone is able to pay $600 or more for a smartphone plus an associated data plan costing $40 a month or more. We cannot connect the world socially if we leave out people who don’t possess smartphones or computers.”

For Mr Olivan the way forward is clear: “We now start running apps directly on our own servers thereby shrinking the amount of data the travels over the network. This way we bring in people who otherwise might have no way of sharing the Facebook experience.”

Facebook has already found that feature phone users are often more engaged with the service, despite slow and erratic data connections, than users with state-of-the-art smartphones. That level of commitment may be interesting to advertisers.

Facebook Zero pays other dividends as well. Feature phone technology is five to ten times faster than the smartphone apps and Facebook is incorporating some of this efficiency back into its regular software in order to make it more responsive yet.

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