Facebook’s Mobile Ambitions Get Bigger

Facebook isn’t going the phone route, at least not yet.

Facebook has 200 million mobile users – making it one of the largest web-mobile hybrid services in the world. And today it made some key announcements that will help the company become as much a part of the mobile Internet as it is of the web today. (Read: Why Facebook’s Future is Mobile.)

For starters the company announced upgrades to its iPhone (s aapl) and Android (s goog) apps, with the new versions likely to be rolled out later this month. But that is just the start.

The social network is instead making a play to get more developers to build social apps that leverage Facebook’s social graph and features. At a press event held at Facebook’s headquarters,  CEO Mark Zuckerberg made good on earlier statements that the company is really looking to build a more horizontal layer of Facebook that can bring the network to more mobile users. With its expanded mobile platform Facebook is:

  • Enabling a single sign-on for mobile apps so users can sign in with one button click, without having to fill in a password. This basically brings Facebook Connect integration to apps so users can register with a familiar sign on and password. After the first sign-in, new sign-ons are one click.
  • Opening up its location API for Facebook Places so developers can fully integrate Facebook’s location service into their apps. Instead of just reading Facebook Places check-ins, which was available previously, now developers can publish check-ins from third-party apps into Facebook Places, something only a couple of developers had access to. And developers can also access a search API to use Facebook Places location data to help deliver information about nearby places that is relevant to users.
  • Offering support for businesses to offer local deals to existing and new customers. When a user checks in at a location, a business owner can offer individual discounts, loyalty rewards for repeat customers or group discounts for people who check-in with friends. There’s also an option to donate to charity after checking in.

Facebook doesn’t seem to want to create a single operating system or a phone that embodies its mobile aspirations. Whether it’s because Facebook doesn’t have the manpower yet or really has no larger ambitions is something we’ll have to see over time. But the expansion of Facebook to mobile makes sense for now. By integrating Facebook sign-ons, Facebook offers easy registration for developers while pushing its reach into more apps. It’s worked well with Facebook Connect and it should get a warm welcome in mobile where registrations and signing on can be a pain.

However, in introducing local deals, Facebook might be putting the hurt on location-centric services such as Foursquare and also take on local deals provider, Groupon. As we have said in the past, “Place data combined with the social graph adds up to an engaged experience, which is an opportunity to make money.” In a GigaOM Pro Research Report, we noted:

The mash-up of social networks, bargain hunting, local business reviews and location-based gaming generate user engagement by bringing friends, bargains, local knowledge and fun together at the best possible time for a retailer — the point of purchase.

Location-based shopping apps enable local business and major brands to reach customers with relevant offers tailored to their preferences — right onto their mobile device while they are close enough to act on them. It’s also an opportunity to rethink the customer experience and create new ways to reward loyalty. (From GigaOM Pro Research Note: Shopping Matters When it Comes to Location-Based Apps)

Ironically, Zuckerberg seems to stress that the company isn’t focused on monetizing the mobile platform. In fact, he seems happy if the added capabilities don’t drive immediate traffic from apps to Facebook. He believes that as more apps becomes social, Facebook benefits by the growing awareness overall. It’s all part of a virtuous cycle that Facebook believes happens when it enables developers, who in turn create happy users more tied to the social network. Facebook also benefits by gathering in more data on users, but we’ll have to see how they use it.

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