New Service Gives Even The Most Basic Mobile Users Access To Facebook

Facebook’s annual conference, F8, was pretty thin on mobile news, but a news item today demonstrates how it’s not far out of Facebook’s sites, and also how third parties could play a big role in how Facebook goes mobile in the future.

Gemalto, a company that makes SIM cards for phones on GSM networks, earlier this year announced a service which puts Facebook access directly on the SIM card, making it usable by even the most basic mobile user. Now, Gemalto has announced its first customer, Telecom Argentina’s mobile operator Personal.

Facebook has made significant inroads into targeting smartphone users with apps and mobile web access, and has even been rolling out apps for feature phones. It says it now has some 350 million people using the social network through these mobile channels.

This newest service is something different. It targets those consumers in markets where there is very little smartphone penetration, mobile data is too expensive for the average consumer, and the main use of mobile phones is still for voice and texting. (And yes, there are still a lot of people in those advanced smartphone-loving countries that still fall into that category, too.)

Accordingly, Gemalto’s SIM offering gives users the most basic iteration of Facebook that can be used without a data plan. A user can post status updates, access their contact book and see status updates from their friends, all through the SMS system.

While that could mean services that let users send status updates for the cost of a text, Gemalto says that Personal, which already has 17 million subscribers and will be targeting Argentina’s large prepay customer base with the service, will be selling weekly and monthly “passess” so that users can send and receive unlimited Facebook texts for a fixed fee. Users will need to upgrade their SIMs to the new Facebook-enabled SIM in order to get access.

Vincent Truffier-Blanc, a marketing director for Gemalto who worked on the service with Facebook, says that the pass system, in Gemalto’s experience, is the “most efficient” way of packaging and selling the service: the company also offers access to Microsoft’s Messenger instant messaging service. That service, available with operators in Thailand, Morocco, Argentina and Brazil, has picked up between four million and five million users so far since being deployed in 2009. That’s approximately 15-20 percent of those collective operators’ subscriber basis, he said.

As with several other third-party services that link in with Facebook (including those “Facebook phones” from HTC and INQ), this service has been created by Gemalto, not Facebook.

“Facebook is aware of what we are doing but we are acting as a classic Facebook partner. We sell the service to the operator,” said Truffier-Blanc. He notes that part of Gemalto had to be certified by Facebook, which it did after meeting with Gemalto to develop the app.

That also meant that it could use Facebook’s private APIs for the service, rather than those that are publicly available. That gave the service the added benefit of contact book access and makes the service more sellable to carriers. “With operators you have to provide them with a robust solution,” he said. “You cannot play with APIs that may change from one day to another.”

Truffier-Blanc says that Gemalto is in conversation with more operators to sign on for the Facebook offering, and it is also negotiating with other leading social networks to enable access to their services on the SIM as well. He’s not naming names, but you can see big potential here not just for Twitter but those many nationally-focused social networks in countries like China and Russia that specifically target users in markets with lower smartphone usage.