This is no Paper tiger. Whether Facebook's new stand-alone take on a news feed app flops or takes off, it's a signal of a much bigger change in the world's largest social network. And it's a swipe-able signal that the company has accepted a reality of the mobile world: The diverse needs of its 945 million monthly users cannot fit inside one app.
Mobile phone users want different sharing apps for different needs. They want, as technovore Om Malik writes here, something simple. They might use Snapchat to exchange funny messages with friends, post their scenic snapshots on Instagram, share a quick quip on Twitter, and use a group messaging app like Kik or WhatsApp to keep in touch with a group of friends.
In order to retain and grow a mobile audience, Facebook now knows, it can’t just make the experience inside of its app better. It needs to create new experiences in new apps, too. Keeping Instagram's product separate from Facebook's main app was one of the first signs of Facebook's new strategy. Paper, which is set to launch on February 3rd, is the latest, boldest step in this direction.
But it’s not the first. Facebook launched its stand-alone messenger app in 2011, after the launch of Kik and WhatsApp. Bret Taylor, who was Facebook's CTO from 2009 and 2012, says the idea came from Beluga, a group messaging service Facebook had recently acquired. "That team was somewhat adamant that the experience was better when this was a mobile application because it felt like more of a primary part of your phone, sort of as primary as you text messaging application," he tells Fast Company. rather than if it were embedded in a Facebook product, everything was a few clicks away, and the experience was secondary."
Facebook continued launching standalone apps, announcing Poke, an ephemeral messaging app, as Snapchat was gaining steam and a camera app just after it announced the Instagram acquisition. Still, Taylor says, there was some fear that launching new products outside of the app would mean that fewer people would use them.
Prior to Paper, perhaps the boldest of its experiments was Facebook Home, an app that took over an Android phone’s home screen with a giant slideshow of News Feed content and made Facebook its default messaging service. It didn't go so well. About 40% of the app's 30,000 reviewers on the Google Play Store gave it the lowest rating possible. AT&T cut the price of the only phone to pre-install the app, the HTC First, from $99 to $0.99, and British network provider EE canceled its launch in the U.K.
So now, with Paper, the company is back to its stand-alone app strategy. Only this time, it’s publicly committing to it. Mark Zuckerberg told investors yesterday that "our vision for Facebook is to create a set of products that help you share any kind of content you want with any audience you want." Suddenly Facebook’s process for sprouting new app ideas is not a series of hackathons but a division called Creative Labs that has its own website. And the acquisition of Instagram is being recast as a nod to this new strategy rather than suggesting that the company was slow to develop products outside its first app on its own.
Creating more apps would likely increase the amount of time that mobile users spend on Facebook. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and BlackBerry have all created their own software for mobile devices, but Facebook has no operating system. That means that it will never own the entire experience on a single device, but it also means it can own users’ time on all of them. "We can build systems that talk to billions of users across the web, across iOS, across Android, across BlackBerry, across all these different things," Facebook’s director of platform Doug Purdy told Fast Company last year. "And we know that’s our special skill."
Facebook is by no means failing in this goal. As of late 2012, users across both Android and iOS spent more time in its apps than any other. As of August, 81% of the top-grossing iOS apps and 62% of the to-grossing Android apps used the Facebook login button.
But it has now clearly placed its bets on building an app ecosystem. "We’re not just focusing on improving the experience of sharing with all of your friends—although that’s growing quickly too," Zuckerberg told investors yesterday. "A lot of the new growth we see is coming from giving people tools to share with different-size groups of people."
At first glance, Paper looks to encourage more public sharing, in a Twitter-y way. Paper's product manager Michael Reckhow told the Verge that he hopes the app will indeed offer a different type of sharing experience than Facebook. "Think about when Instagram came out and you now had this new way to share," he said.
Time will tell if Paper’s narrative hews closer that of Facebook Messenger, which is now being downloaded more often from the iTunes store than Facebook’s main app, or to Poke, Facebook’s Snapchat competitor, which Zuckerberg now calls a joke. Either way, one thing is certain: It won’t be the last app Facebook launches.