If Facebook dies (and it might), its killer will be born mobile

Remember when Facebook was the hot new thing on the Web? Now it's king of a dying medium, and Molly Wood doubts it has the mobile chops to survive the disruption that's shaking the entire Internet.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
3 min read

Is Facebook a dead social network walking?

By now you all know the sad tale of Facebook's sinking IPO and the ongoing questions about who is to blame for pumping up the social network's stock valuation and then skittering away at the first sign of actual trading.

Regardless of who got played in the deal (read: small investors, as usual), the market is actually responding appropriately to Facebook's current situation: the site is a behemoth of traffic and attention, a platform underlying the very fabric of the Web, and an indispensable part of the lives of millions, but that doesn't mean it's safe. Sure, Facebook has conquered the Web, but the Web as we know it may be a dying medium. The Facebook killer won't be a Web site at all: it'll be born mobile, just like the generation who will use it.

Facebook's decline: this is the house that mobile tore down.
Facebook's decline: this is the house that mobile tore down. Google Finance

Careful observers of the run-up to Facebook's IPO, including myself and my CNET colleagues, noted early that Facebook has a mobile problem. It doesn't monetize mobile traffic, it stated its concerns about mobile growth from the outset, and it apparently sounded the alarm a few months ago (at least to big investors) about a dramatic increase in mobile usage that was cutting into revenues in a pretty serious fashion.

None of that should be a surprise, either. Facebook is hardly the only site with a mobile problem. Every site on the Web has a mobile problem.

Traffic from mobile devices is growing at an astounding rate -- by some estimates, mobile visits now account for fully 20 percent of Web traffic. Every measure of mobile growth borders on exponential: Cisco estimates that global mobile data traffic will increase 18 times over between 2011 and 2016, the amount of mobile data consumed will go up 17-fold in the same time frame; mobile video will account for 70 percent of mobile traffic by 2016, 25 times more than in 2011. Global mobile data traffic more than doubled in 2011, for the fourth year in a row.

Compared with all that growth, mobile ad spending is still small, and even though it's projected to more than double in 2012 to $11.6 billion, according to Strategy Analytics, advertisers will still spend nearly four times as much on online advertising.

Simply put: the world is going mobile, it's hard to make money on mobile, and no one is feeling that more painfully than Facebook.

But someone will figure it out. Someone always does, and there's always money to be made where the people are. It just won't be Facebook. The company doesn't get mobile -- never has. Young as he is, Mark Zuckerberg was raised on the Web, on computers. Remember him saying in 2010 that the company didn't have an iPad app because the iPad "isn't mobile, it's a computer"? Facebook just plain missed it.

Its iPhone app is legendarily problematic: it has an unbelievable two-star rating on iTunes, and a recent blog post attempted to explain the technical reasons for its sheer horribleness. The Android app fares slightly better in reviews, but has certainly had its share of user rage -- recent reviews suggest the latest update borked things again, an all too common experience in Facebook land.

Image: Facebook's iOS app fluctuates between bad and worse, depending on the update.
Facebook's iOS app fluctuates between bad and worse, depending on the update. Screenshot, Molly Wood, CNET

Facebook's mobile efforts are so bad that one writer even speculated the apps are horrible on purpose, just to keep people on the site. And the latest round of rumors suggest Facebook may be so desperate to conquer mobile that it will build its own phone to avoid becoming a platform at the constant behest of Apple, Google, or Microsoft's demands.

Meanwhile, a generation of kids my son's age and older are living their lives solely on mobile devices -- tablets and phones and whatever iterations the future holds. For them, Facebook will be something their parents do, and it's still fundamentally a Web-based experience. It's likely to hold little appeal to them--and somewhere out there, entrepreneurs thinking along the lines of, say, Dave Morin at Path (ironically, a former Facebooker) are working on products that are born mobile, that skip the Web entirely, that live in the world the next generation lives in.

I'm not sure Facebook has what it takes to compete -- not without a major move and a complete shift in its thinking about mobile. Facebook is still king of the Web, but the Web is a much smaller kingdom than it used to be.