Facebook needs to learn from AOL and CompuServe

Social networking site Facebook is getting out of its league and needs to learn from the mistakes from the early days of the internet. 

This week it announced two new plans which would see it move into Google’s stomping grounds of search and mobile phone use.

The first plan involves providing its users with a search engine and the second is that it will create Facebook homescreen for Android.

While on the face of this, it would appear to be a good idea, it is a barefaced attempt to appease shareholders and analysts who claim that the company has not got an effective way of making money. Mobile, in particular, is something that Facebook has been slow to adapt to, and while its advertising is picking up, it is still a long way from being where it should.

Part of the problem is that Facebook thinks users want systems like AOL and CompuServe. For those who came late to the internet, these outfits offered a one stop shop for users. You could message, email, visit news groups, and surf the net all in one spot.

But as internet use grew, that model folded – mostly because they could never provide the wide range of experiences that users wanted. There was always some software that a user needed to leave AOL or CompuServe while the number of supported services made it difficult to navigate.

With modern operating systems, getting out of different apps is not as difficult as leaving AOL or CompuServe and it makes these particular walled gardens pretty pointless.

Facebook’s latest cunning plan is called “Home”. The new software lets users modify Android to prominently display their Facebook newsfeed and messages on the home screens of a wide range of devices. Meanwhile, it hides other apps.

This would be great for those who only use their mobile phones to visit Facebook, but it is not clear who those people are.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the hundreds of reporters and industry executives gathered at the company’s Menlo Park campus that he did not see why people need to visit apps to see what’s going on with those we care about.

What he failed to spot is that the same logic applies to those who do not want to visit Facebook. His comment is based on the arrogant logic that people only ever need to visit his site.

The “Home” software will be available for download for free from Google Play starting 12 April. In addition, AT&T Inc has exclusive rights to sell for $100 the first handsets, made by Taiwan’s HTC that come pre-installed with the software starting the same day. France Telecom’s Orange will be offering the phone in Europe.

They will tank of course. No one wants to use a smartphone that is going to weight their mobile towards Facebook, just like no one in the late 1990s wanted their PC to just point to AOL.

However, analysts say should the new software take off, it may begin to draw users away from Google services. Offering Facebook messaging, social networking and photos on the very first screen that Android users see could divert attention from the services, such as search and email, which generate advertising revue for Google.

But this is unlikely. Google’s success has not been based on attempting to provide a walled garden. The search engine has done well because it offers a simple screen which is quick to call up and does not require much thought. Its other services are usually approached from outside, rather than through a central page. In fact, when Google has attempted to mimic the AOL and CompuServe model it has failed.

Facebook’s other attempt is search, however, once again, this shows a lack of understanding as to why users are on its site.

Most users search by typing in a name into their browser. This browser window is already open when they are looking at Facebook. It is not particularly likely that users in the middle of a chat with a friend will want to search for anything, but if they did, they would just type their query in a new search window. Why would they need to navigate their way through a Facebook page to do something that simple? Again, this is CompuServe logic – you have to know where a service is. This level of expertise is harder to obtain than simply typing the search in your browser window.

This is all to do with keeping up appearances. The company is appearing to have a handle on mobile, it is appearing to take on Google. The reality is that it is hoping that these appearances will buy it time while it establishes its advertising business.