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Facebook platform 2.0: Is mobile the key?

Facebook's got a big event next week for developers. Could mobile applications on third-party devices be the next big thing for this hot social network?

Only a year ago, there was a huge buzz around Facebook's new application platform. Big money was made by some, while others simply threw together whatever they could and released it to the masses in the hopes of being the next iLike.

Today, the Facebook platform is alive and well, but the hot new platform is the iPhone. People are lining up for hours to get their hands on one, and developers see dollars in those lines: Unlike with Facebook apps, you can charge for iPhone software, and developers keep 70 percent of the money collected through Apple's app store.

Facebook's iPhone application is one of the iPhone's most popular applications. CNET Networks

One of the 550-plus new iPhone applications was Facebook's own, a slightly amped-up version of the Web-based Facebook for iPhone Web site introduced late last year. It's more useful than than the mobile Web site, but it's still watered down from its desktop cousin, with just a contact list and a chat app. Notably missing are the other Facebook applications that have helped make the social network such an appealing service for both users and developers.

It would make sense if the next step for the Facebook platform was a mobile version--something where whatever you developed would work on both desktop and mobile devices, starting with the iPhone and later Android. In that regard, Facebook's mobile iPhone application is only the beginning, and just a preview of what's to come.

I think we'll see at next week's F8 event a product or service that will help developers shrink down their applications to fit into Facebook's mobile application framework. It's a move that goes squarely against Apple's engrained apps marketplace by having developers spend resources on coding for Facebook instead of themselves; however, the result will be the augmentation of the mobile Facebook experience that's closer to what people have gotten accustomed to on their computers.

Facebook's UI has already begun to change to match the finger-friendly style. The latest profile refresh has moved the applications from a sidebar to different tabs--the same look can be found in Facebook's iPhone-optimized Web app. Such a style could easily be shrunk down to fit a smaller screen, whereas the old one could not.

There are still some road bumps. For one, Apple's SDK and Android are vastly different. But if Facebook is forward-thinking, it'll want people to develop applications that will work on both. Apple's iPhone is clearly the weak link here with no Adobe Flash support in sight and a very limited amount of things you can do using the hardware and phone file system. One such solution for interoperability is Google's OpenSocial initiative, however, Facebook has been at odds with adopting it. The middle-of-the-road solution is to use Web standards that are both interoperable and compatible no matter what modern device you're using.

Another bump is whether or not developers will be willing to dedicate their time to developing something for Facebook mobile or simply create a standalone native iPhone application. These individual applications hold more opportunity for the little guys to make a quick buck, but by tying into Facebook's system they get a tight network of users who might share it with one another and cross-pollinate that activity to the desktop version.

Mobile or not, expect something big next week from the Facebook camp.

Update: Made a correction from 30 to 70 percent regarding developer revenue split on the Apps store.