Friday, November 12, 2010

You've Got Mail! How Facebook Can Avoid Becoming the Next AOL

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

What’s the difference between Facebook and the AOL of old? On Monday, Facebook is expected to announce that they are adding true email functionality, and users will be able to send emails to addresses, as well as use software clients like Outlook and Thunderbird to read and send emails. With the introduction of email, Facebook has now completely replicated the features of AOL’s 1990s-era desktop client. Both offer messaging, profiles, profile names, chat, pictures, groups, games, and news, and thrived on the simple promise of connecting you with your friends.

So, Just How Similar are They?

AOL, the fabled “walled garden” of mediocrity, was hugely popular before the broad popularity of the wild, unkempt Internet intervened. AOL offered everything a user could want in a nice, consistent interface, and email accounts persist to this day. Facebook has long offered simple messaging between users on its website, and has become a popular way for users, especially younger ones, to send messages to each other as casual acquaintances change jobs and email addresses over the years.

There was a time when TV and billboard ads showcased AOL keywords for brands, just as Facebook page URLs are showcased today. And Facebook extracts significant revenues from brands for premium advertising. Placement on the AOL homepage cost a huge sum, just like prime placement on Facebook does. Setting up a brand page on AOL cost a large monthly stipend. And while a brand can set up a basic presence for free on Facebook, the social network mandates minimum ad buys in order to offer promotions.

Your Mom is on It

Facebook is a nice, safe Internet alternative where developers, users, and brands all have to play nice or get punted. There is no porn, spam, or hate groups. That, too, was AOL’s value proposition: a clean, well-lighted place online. Since Facebook opened up to all users in 2006, AOL’s army of moms has been migrating to Facebook in droves — and friending their kids.

Mass-Market Mediocrity

With 500 million users and a something-for-everyone menu of features, can Facebook escape the mediocrity of Web portals like AOL and Yahoo, whose addresses are as tired as addresses? Uninspired features like Facebook Groups and Facebook Places don’t bode well for the site.

Yet Facebook has made a very significant, brilliant shift from its “homepage to the world” predecessors: allowing other sites to connect. With the introduction earlier this year of the Facebook Open Graph and Social Plugins, any website can augment itself with Facebook’s social features, and it is expected that sites will be soon be able to include Facebook’s highly targeted and lucrative ads.

Perhaps email addresses will end up looking as lame as in a few years. But Facebook has far more going for it than its website. By spreading its roots throughout the open Web, Facebook won’t have to worry about the state of its own garden.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The iPhone App is the Flash Homepage of 2010

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

In the late 1990s, it was common for companies to spend $50,000 to $150,000 for a Flash homepage that looked like a beautiful brochure. However, they soon learned that Flash was cumbersome, slow to load, expensive o build, and hard to update, and moved on to HTML. Now only specialized, high-end sites are Flash only.

The exact same thing has replayed itself on the iPhone. Companies have paid $50,000, $100,000, and more for an iPhone app. Now they have to keep the iPhone app in sync with their regular web site, and have to add additional native apps, each at a high price point, due to the hypergrowth of Android, and newly viable platforms like Windows Phone 7.

Businesses are moving on to HTML5

Banks and airlines, commonly known as technology laggards, are well ahead of the rest of the industry when it comes to mobile access to their systems. Banks and airlines are deploying highly functional, HTML5 mobile optimized websites that offer a high level of functionality relative to their full-fledged websites and existing iPhone apps. What is it that banks and airlines have figured out that Silicon Valley startups with their focus on native Apps have not figured out?

Compare the banks and airline mobile experience to that of the top digital agencies, many of which are still obsessed with Flash home pages and have sites that render incorrectly if at all on mobile handsets. This was first pointed out in a hilarious post by Nick Jones in August with screenshots of the top digital agencies, most of which do not render at all on a mobile browser, and then followed up. AdAge followed up with an article in September about the World’s Worst Agency Websites for iPhone and iPads,.

Even at my company Webtrends, with a powerful mobile analytics solution, and recently acquired mobile apps technology, our website renders well on a mobile phone but we are still in the process of optimizing the content so that it easier to navigate.

The native vs. HTML5 battle is irrelevant to businesses

The digerati in Silicon Valley have been arguing ad infinitum about the merits of native vs. HTML mobile apps. Businesses have now picked a winner, given the prohibitive cost of multiple native apps, and the features of an average business app which can be amply supported with mobile HTML5 browsers, which even include GPS.

Carol Steinberg, SVP of E-Commerce for NBC summed it perfectly: “We’re really keen on ROI and making sure what we’re investing in the mobile platform is a worthwhile and good investment. I am just starting to feel that HTML5 will be able to give us the functions we need on our m-commerce site versus app development for the iPhone and Android, which means three platforms we have to maintain and upgrade.” Even Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s President of Servers and Tools, recently stated that “HTML is the only true cross-platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform”.

There will always be a place for native apps — particularly in communications, gaming, graphics intensive applications — and for the interim they’re an efficient mechanism to process payments until phones are updated with better payment systems. Some businesses may still continue to deploy native apps on one or two platforms that have some additional features. An increasingly popular and almost indistinguishable method of creating a content-oriented app is to wrap a native shell around a browser showing a HTML5 mobile optimized site using technologies like PhoneGap.

Overall native apps have run their course. They get lost in the app store and are hard to find, requiring businesses to post “Available on the App Store” icons on their homepages, where they could just as easily post a “SMS this site to your phone”. Even with over 6 billion apps downloaded, research has shown that most of these are ignored or disposed, and users are only running on average 4-6 apps each, most of which use very native features like communications and the camera.Important apps like maps and Facebook are considered core to the device and are even built in to feature phones nowadays.