Snaptu Is Facebook’s Foray Into Feature Phones, Israel

The amount of buzz generated by smartphone platforms such as iPhone (s aapl) and Android (s goog) tend to make people lose perspective of the global mobile industry. Companies like Nokia (s nok) and others are still dominant mobile players thanks to their widespread distribution of feature phones.

As smartphones become more advanced and more affordable, they will become a majority of the mobile devices used around the world — probably sometime in the near future. However, that day isn’t here yet.

Feature phones, especially in emerging markets such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam still play a very central role in the way people communicate, and Facebook knows this. Over the weekend, Facebook announced that it is acquiring Israeli startup Snaptu.

I have personally been using (and writing about) Snaptu before I knew what a smartphone was, and well before the iPhone was born.

The Snaptu app platform brings an iPhone-like experience to the simplest of the mobile devices, assuming that device can access the web. It supports more than 2,500 devices, mostly feature phones, and gives users the ability to access their favorite websites and services with a streamlined and intuitive interface. Snaptu is, in my opinion, the only mobile application for non-smartphones that brings such a wide variety of services, generally reserved for the smartphone community, all wrapped up in an easy-to-use interface. Snaptu recently launched its LinkedIn app, but it also has a relatively advanced Twitter app, Facebook, RSS reader, and many more.

The price tag of the Facebook acquisition is said to be anywhere between $60 and $80 million, but more importantly, it signifies that Facebook isn’t satisfied with its web and smartphone dominance, and it wants to become accessible to anyone around the world with a mobile device. With Snaptu’s 30 million users, the social networking giant will have the ability to increase its mobile dominance in markets it would otherwise not have access to.

In a company blog post, Snaptu explained, “We soon decided that working as part of the Facebook team offered the best opportunity to keep accelerating the pace of our product development. And joining Facebook means we can make an even bigger impact on the world.”

Another interesting point about Snaptu is the team and the company’s philosophy toward development; they truly stand out among all the startups with whom I’ve worked. My first encounter with the team was after I had reviewed Snaptu on my blog. I recommended some features, and someone from the company immediately responded by saying some of my suggestions were going to be implemented immediately, while others were already in the late stages of development.

This showed me there was some unique chemistry there. The company takes user feedback very seriously, and Snaptu as a whole has a very user-centric philosophy, which is actually a lot like Facebook in many ways.

In addition to the significance this deal has for Snaptu, Facebook and users of feature phones, the Israeli mobile scene is buzzing about this news.

Leading Israeli tech blog, Newsgeek, also reported yesterday that based on their sources, Facebook is looking to open an office in Hertzliya, Israel and grow their presence to at least 30 employees by the end of 2011. Like the majority of Facebook’s international offices, the Israeli office, which has been in the works for the past three months, will focus mainly on sales.

When I asked Robert Scoble about this new Facebook acquisition, he summed it up perfectly by saying “The San Francisco cool kids will yawn, but there are billions of people who don’t have Android or iOS-based phones. This is a big win for both Facebook and Israel’s startup ecosystem. The Israeli tech ecosystem is white-hot and this is another example of why. This is a great acquisition, because it provides the path for Facebook to get to more than a billion users.”