MWC: Facebook challenges Nokia-MS for 3rd-ecosytem title

01 Mar 2012

Nokia’s aspirations to develop Microsoft’s Windows Phone as the “third ecosystem” could be thwarted by an unlikely but powerful challenger: Facebook.

Nokia chief Stephen Elop spent a press event Monday and the Wednesday morning keynote at the Mobile World Congress reiterating Nokia’s mission to develop Windows Phone into the next big apps ecosystem after Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Inevitably, the Wednesday panel discussion turned to Windows Phone’s chances of greatness after years of languishing in niche territory.

Unsurprisingly, Elop stuck to his guns, pointing out that all the numbers are going up and that Nokia’s plans to put location-based services at the center of its next wave of apps ecosystem development, backed by operator billing, will drive it further.

Peter Chou, CEO of HTC, admitted that WP growth has been slow for HTC, despite being an early adopter, but for people who do use it now, “the satisfaction rating is very high. So the potential is there.”

Both said that Windows Phone’s success won’t necessarily come at the expense of other OS platforms, as two-thirds of mobile customers still use feature phones, which means a large untapped market up for grabs as smartphone prices go down.

But even as Nokia looks to build Windows Phone into the next big platform, Facebook is already positioning itself as an apps platform in its own right – and it has already set its sights on the mobile web apps space.

In a keynote speech at MWC Monday, Facebook CTO Bret Taylor described Facebook as a “natural” for mobile, and highlighted its ability to run apps and share content across all OSs, which also makes it a natural platform for mobile web apps.

Facebook is also addressing three key pain points they hear from apps developers in the mobile web apps space: discovery, fragmented versions of HTML5 and lack of a payments platform.

With Facebook’s OpenGraph aimed at the discovery issue, Facebook has formed a W3C group, Core Mobile Web, which will evangelize HTML5 mobile web standards and prioritize features for web apps that developers can focus on while other features are finalized in the standard.

Facebook has also started Ringmark, a testing ground for mobile browsers to prove compliance with mobile web apps standards, including HTML5, DRM and adaptive streaming.

Facebook is also now partnering with operators to improve the operator billing experience, Taylor said.

“When it comes to payments, the web experience is broken for end users,” he said. “Look at SMS verification – if I’m playing a game and I want to buy some object for 99 cents, I have to go through several steps to verify that my device is attached to my account before I can get back to the game. Most people never make it past that first step.”

Facebook wants to improve the experience by eliminating SMS verification and make mobile payment a single step.

One aspect of all this that went unmentioned by Taylor is that Facebook is one player (albeit one with 800 million users) in the larger context of industry efforts to take mobile apps to the cloud via browsers.

Google is banking on web apps being the future of Android specifically (via its Chrome for Android browser, which was demoed to applause during Eric Schmidt’s keynote Tuesday night).

Meanwhile, the GSMA-sanctioned Wholesale Application Community is working to bring storefronts and payments into the mobile web apps equation. At this week’s MWC, in fact, the WAC announced the beta launch of its in-application billing network API with nine operators, including Smart Communications and all three Korean cellcos (KT, LG U+ and SK Telecom).

All of that adds up to a larger trend that will eventually outgun device-locked app ecosystems anyway, so it’s arguably unfair to consider Facebook as a contender for the “third ecosystem”.

On the other hand, once the mobile apps community makes that overall transition to the cloud and web apps – which will also include Apple and Google – Facebook could be in a very strong position to be one of the biggest players on the block.

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