Can Facebook Platform reinvent mobile app discovery?

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Facebook has always been about helping people make connections, bringing users into contact with the friends, celebrities, organizations and businesses that matter most to them. Now the social networking goliath is betting it can do the same with mobile applications, connecting its 350 million active mobile users to the games, productivity tools and media sharing solutions poised to revolutionize, personalize and socialize the smartphone user experience. On Monday, Facebook expanded its Facebook Platform APIs and developer tools to the mobile ecosystem, beginning with Apple's iOS (NASDAQ:AAPL) and the mobile web (and coming soon to operating systems including Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android). Writing on the Facebook Developer Blog, engineer Luke Shepard states the move is the first step towards creating enhanced mobile interactions, introducing a series of social channels designed to galvanize app discovery and distribution.

The social channels coming to mobile include Bookmarks, which Shepard calls "one of the key re-engagement channels for Apps on Facebook." Whenever users accessing Facebook via the iPhone, iPad or mobile website interact with a third-party app, it gets added to their Bookmarks list; if a native version of the iOS app is installed, it will launch anytime the user taps the corresponding bookmark, and if it isn't installed, Facebook directs consumers to its App Store download page. Facebook is also introducing Requests, enabling users to invite their friends to an app--according to Shepard, users can receive Requests anywhere the app is supported, meaning that if a player makes a move in a game on, their opponent can respond via iPhone.

Also new to mobile: Facebook's News Feed, which enables users to share highlights from apps--their friends can now tap the News Feed link and land directly on the native iOS or mobile web version of the app. Another new feature, Authenticated Referrals, ensures that all referral traffic to an app connects users to Facebook, enabling developers to deliver a more personalized experience. To cap it all off, Facebook is extending its Credits virtual currency to mobile web apps, allowing developers to offer premium virtual and digital goods--developers must embrace Facebook Credits as their exclusive payment mechanism, however, and cannot implement the option within iOS apps or mobile web apps running within a Facebook iOS app.

"We are at the beginning of bringing Facebook Platform apps to mobile," Shepard states. "The features we are launching today are still under development. They will evolve as we learn more about building richer social experiences on mobile devices." Developers with existing native iOS apps can begin integrating Facebook Platform tools using Facebook's iOS SDK--mobile web developers are recommended to leverage HTML5 to build cross-platform apps as well as the PhoneGap Facebook plugin for distribution across native app stores. 

So can Facebook solve the discovery dilemma bedeviling mobile app developers? It looks promising. Mobile social networking exerts a strong hold on U.S. consumers, with 37 percent of all social media users nationwide now accessing social platforms via mobile device according to a consumer survey issued last month by Nielsen; Facebook is not only the most popular mobile app across all operating systems, but also boasts a unique mobile web audience surpassing 46 million. It's not just about reach, however--it's also about influence. App recommendations from trusted, in-the-know friends simply mean more to consumers than marketplace bestseller lists or editorial reviews--seeing which games your Facebook friends are playing and which photo filtering apps they're using can serve as an invaluable guide during your next App Store shopping spree. If this is only the beginning of what Facebook has in store, I can't wait to see what's next. -Jason