Facebook takes on the enterprise with new social network

Facebook is beginning a pilot test of a desktop service and mobile app for what's being dubbed Facebook at Work.

Facebook, the world's largest social network, is making its first move into the enterprise.

The company confirmed to Computerworld that it is beginning a pilot test of a desktop service and mobile app for what's being dubbed Facebook at Work, an enterprise-level social and collaborative network for the workplace.

"Facebook at Work is a separate experience that gives employees the ability to connect and collaborate efficiently using Facebook tools -- many that they're likely already using, such as News Feed, Groups, messages and events," a Facebook spokeswoman wrote in an email. "Co-workers can stay in touch with each other in the same way they stay in touch with friends and family via Facebook."

She noted that while Facebook at Work is designed to give users the look and functions they're familiar with on their social network, this service will be separate.

Employees' documents or information shared on Facebook at Work will not be connected to their personal Facebook pages. "The info shared among employees is only accessible to people in the company," the spokeswoman added.

Facebook is testing the new service with a few partners. The app will be visible in Apple and Android app stores in the U.S. and the U.K. but will only be accessible to pilot partners.

"The enterprise market is an important one to virtually every single major software company," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "As the enterprise market is generally seen as a more profitable one, this will give Facebook an opportunity to drive up their profitability."

With its success in social media, Facebook should have plenty to offer a company that wants to help workers collaborate.

"Consider what Facebook brings to the table for the enterprise customer," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "First, Facebook absolutely knows how to run a social network from a technical standpoint. They know how to make it reliable, secure and how to scale it. They also know the feature mix and content that gets people engaged with the network and coming back for more."

The enterprise could be a big new lucrative market for Facebook.

"It will be very interesting to see the business model underpinning this effort," added Olds. "Will it be a purely pay-to-play, where a corporation essentially rents a Facebook instance for use by their employees alone? Or will there be an option where advertising from outsiders could be used to defray the cost of the corporate service? How much do you think a luxury car manufacturer or a large multinational bank would pay to have a sidebar ad on the company Facebook site?"

Of course, there is the risk that effort could fail if companies don't trust Facebook, which has had a history of privacy issues with users' information.

"I don't think Facebook is trusted enough to pull this off," Olds said. "There are far more concerns about privacy with business services, and folks don't believe Facebook is focused enough on security. Facebook's brand just isn't a business but a consumer brand."

On the other hand, Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said Facebook is onto a great idea.

"Think about it. Fifteen years ago, the first thing we did when we woke up was check voice mail," he said. "Five years ago the first thing we did was check email. Today, we check our social feed. Now with Facebook at Work, we can check our work feeds. We can organize ourselves by projects instead of social groups. Instead of sending co-workers email, we'll message them."

Using a network to collaborate in the office -- especially one that so many people are familiar with -- is a better way to work, according to Kerravala.

However, if Facebook at Work fails, it could be a big stumble for the company.

"Well it's a revenue path they don't have right now, so if they fail, it's a short-term blip," he said. "Long term it could be a bigger problem because it could limit their growth. And I will say that serving consumers and businesses is very difficult. Very few companies can do both."

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