Facebook sees apps in its future ... lots of apps

CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on the company's plans for more standalone apps

Facebook's mobile app.
Facebook's mobile app.

Imagine using a separate Facebook app just for sharing status updates with your closest friends, or maybe co-workers. In the next few years, such an app could exist.

Facebook, in an effort to divvy up its service, is looking to develop a range of new standalone apps to let people connect with others and share content, perhaps in new ways beyond how they do already.

That, in a nutshell, is what CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a fair amount of time discussing during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call on Wednesday. It's an ambitious effort, but it could be a very good thing for the massive social network, which now claims to have more than 1.2 billion monthly active users.

The project, Zuckerberg said, would address the various ways people take to the Internet today to share content -- whether it be photos, events, locations or games -- and interact with each other. Zuckerberg said a handful of new apps, or "experiences," might be developed over the next few years to give people new ways to share content.

"If you think about the overall space of sharing and communicating, there's not just one thing people are doing," Zuckerberg said. "People want to share any type of content with any audience."

The strategy, if it works, could help Facebook keep people inside its ecosystem, attract new users, and allow marketers to serve up ever more targeted ads.

Right now, Facebook operates two mobile apps outside of its core site: Instagram, for photo and video sharing; and Messenger, for peer-to-peer mobile messaging. In some cases, these apps give active Facebook users an alternative service to connect with each other. But they could also serve as standalone mobile hubs for people who are not as active on Facebook.

"Instagram is a different kind of community than Facebook," Zuckerberg said, perhaps referring to the type of person who wants to see what his or her friends are up to, but without all the other stuff.

One recent tweak to Facebook's Messenger app shows the company wants to weave more people into its apps: This past November the service was updated to let people message each other even if they aren't Facebook friends, as long as the sender has the recipient's phone number. With that change, Facebook sought to better compete against popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and WeChat. The change may have worked too -- Facebook reported on Wednesday that it had seen a 70 percent rise over the past few months in the number of people using Messenger.

To provide an example of one type of new app Facebook might be thinking about, Zuckerberg cited a surprising metric during the earnings call: Roughly 500 million people -- nearly half of Facebook's total monthly users -- are now using Facebook Groups, a service for setting up customized spaces for interactions and sharing, every month.

Zuckerberg did not say that Groups would be spun off into its own mobile app, but a look at what the service does helps to illuminate Facebook's thinking in the area of standalone apps. "By creating a group for each of the important parts of your life -- family, teammates, coworkers -- you decide who sees what you share," the product's landing page proclaims.

"Giving experiences like that room to breathe and be their own brand is a really valuable thing," Zuckerberg said.

Mobile is a critical component of Facebook's business, given consumers' shift away from desktop PCs in favor of smartphones and tablets. The company now describes itself as being "mobile first," and its latest earnings results show that to be true, if you base it on advertising dollars.

For the first time, Facebook reported on Wednesday that more than half of its total advertising revenue came from mobile devices.

It would make sense, therefore, for Facebook to further monetize its service using a new suite of mobile apps, but first it would have to show advertisers that people are actually using them.

Karsten Weide, an industry analyst with IDC, said that developing more standalone mobile apps might provide consumers with a way into Facebook's services, without the friction. The amount of content and functions the Internet company has released over the years has grown so much it's almost become unwieldy, he said.

"It would make sense to branch out to let users access their services more directly," he said. Plus, some of Facebook's competitors, like Google and Yahoo, already offer a range of their own mobile apps for performing different functions.

Facebook is still growing the number of its users on mobile. In terms of monthly active users on those devices, the company reported a nearly 40 percent rise on Wednesday.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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