As we speak, Facebook has nearly saturated the first-world with users. Were Facebook users to form a country, it would be the third largest after China and India with nearly one billion citizens. But eventually Facebook will hit a population peak, there simply wont be enough people with access to smartphones and computers and high-speed Internet connections. Yet Facebook still has big plans for growth and it’s looking to rapidly growing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America to find its next billion users. As Christopher Mims reports for Quartz, Facebook is using Facebook Zero, a text-only and completely free version of the site, to convince this “proto-middle class” that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.
By the end of 2012, it’s expected that there will be more mobile phones than people on Earth with three-quarters of them being dumb-phones, i.e. not smartphones. According to Mims, “Most of these phones have no data plan associated with them, and if they are capable of browsing the web at all, it’s through a protocol all but abandoned years ago in developed countries, known as WAP, which can only access websites specially tailored to it.” Facebook, in its original form, was not designed for the WAP world, but as early as 2008, executives at the company decided it was important to invest resources into the WAP world. In May 2012, Facebook announced Facebook Zero initially available to “50 mobile operators in 45 countries and territories with zero data charges.” Zero is a bare-bones text-only version that can be accessed at 0.facebook.com from WAP phones without incurring any data charges.
Everything about the normal Facebook experience is present in Zero: notifications, friend requests, status updates, tagging, etc. But the trick lies in the the text-only nature of Zero, if you care to view the photos you are tagged in, normal data rates apply. But still, at the core, Facebook Zero is able to be free by maintaining a zero rating from the telecom companies. In markets dominated by pre-paid plans, Facebook is the only site accessible without incurring exorbitant fees. The effect is incredible. Mims writes:
In the 18 months after Facebook Zero launched in Africa, the number of Africans on Facebook ballooned by 114%. It’s hard to directly link that growth to Facebook Zero, but it’s easy to see how they could be related. (In the 10 months since then, the number of users of Facebook in Africa grew only 18%.) In Kenya, which is typical for the continent, 99% of access to the internet is accomplished on mobile devices, almost all of which are either feature phones or even more basic models capable only of voice and text messaging. Facebook is now so popular in Africa that the site is driving the adoption of broadband internet, just so users can have faster access to all those pictures and status updates.
The exact details of the arrangements between Facebook and carriers are nebulous at best. But it’s safe to assume Facebook isn’t subsidizing the cost of the data. It’s much more likely that the carriers are covering the data cost in an attempt to hook their customers into the viral nature of the social network and subsequently incur marked-up fees when they view photos and navigate to external links through Facebook Zero.
Mims make special note that it isn’t just Africa where Facebook is taking over: “In the Philippines… Facebook is literally becoming the internet. At the end of 2011, according to Nielsen Research, a third of the country’s citizens were on the internet, or 33.6 million people. Today, the number of Facebook users in the Philipines is 29.4.” If you sift through the data of the top ten countries countries of Facebook users, six are considered emerging markets, five of which only have access to Facebook through Facebook Zero.
Facebook Zero is just the beginning in the company’s steps to acquire their next billion customers. Quartz made a chart to look at how Facebook has created a solution to get their network on nearly every mobile device out there.
Facebook SIM packages a basic version of the site onto the SIM card of the device and then interacts with the network via text message. It doesn’t even require a data plan to operate.
Facebook by Fonetwish is a program installed on the network itself. Developed by Singapore based U2opia Mobile, Facebook for Fonetwish uses the massively popular Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) protocol to generate the Facebook interface.
Facebook for Every Phone runs on feature phones and is much closer to the Facebook Mobile application used on smartphones. This app is only free for 90 days (likely enough to get people hooked), before it returns to normal data pricing. The original version was created in partnership with the Snaptu mobile-application platform. The partnership was so successful that Facebook bought Snaptu in 2011 and rededicated the entire team to Facebook for Every Phone.
Facebook’s goal is now to go completely mobile. And by that, I mean completely and totally mobile in certain markets. Many of the places the network is going into don’t have access to computers but do have access to varying strata of mobile phones. This means that Facebook for Every Phone or Facebook Zero could be a user’s only route of access to the site.
On Facebook’s path to world dominion, the mobile first strategy is key and has been paying off. No matter where their stock price sits, investors will remain pleased that Facebook can triple their number of users in a country like Vietnam, a country where Facebook is illegal.
Photo via Neil Palmer, Flickr