Facebook’s Plan to Conquer the World — With Crappy Phones and Bad Networks

Some of the many handsets found at Facebook.

What Facebook also gets is more data via retention in the form of more people doing more things it can track. More people equals a bigger social graph, and more knowledge about the people within and how they are connected, where they live, where they’ve been, what they love. It gets to know things about whole world and, presumably, one day down the line serve the world an ad.

Facebook’s recon team hit the ground in Nigeria in the dead of night, and right away ran into trouble with the law. “What did you bring for me,” demanded the first cop they encountered. “We brought ourselves,” responded Facebook’s Ragavan Srinivasan, an Android program manager, “do you want a hug?” He didn’t; he wanted a small bribe as an entry fee. (They refused.) This wasn’t business as usual in California, but then again that was the entire reason they had come to Africa.

At Mobile World Congress today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a new Internet.org innovation lab where developers will be able to test the kinds of challenging connectivity conditions they might expect to find in the developing world–without even leaving California. He was describing something that had its roots in this trip to Africa. Facebook had already conquered America. Now, it wanted to take on the rest of the world–especially the parts where people weren’t even online yet. The first step in that journey was to score a phone. Something cheap. Something you couldn’t get in the US.

Srinivasan and George Wang, another of Facebook’s Android project managers, rose early and headed to an electronics market on the outskirts of Lagos. Called Computer Village, it sprawls across several square blocks just off of Kodesoh Street in Ikeja and is chock full of every type of device imaginable, new and used, genuine and counterfeit, legal and decidedly not.

Music blared from the stalls. Srinivasan and Wang stopped at one of the higher end stores (meaning one with walls and a roof) and haggled their way into a couple of Android handsets. Stepping back out into the scrum, they elbowed their way through the crowd in the street to another stall where they picked up a few SIM cards with what passes for a decent data plan in Lagos–30MB of data.

Back at the hotel, they fired up their new phones. Both had old versions of Facebook pre-installed, which they began updating along with some other apps. In 40 minutes, they’d burned through their monthly allotment of data. That was a problem. It was far from the only one.

For many people in the developing world, Facebook is the Internet. And while that may be somewhat true in America too, we Yanks can at least pull up the world’s leading social network on desktops and iPhones and Galaxy S4s with robust Internet connections, gorgeous screens and easy access to a reliable power grid. Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia and South America where Facebook is trying attract another 5 Billion users, that technological sophistication is far from given. Facebook faces massive hurdles there that are just unknown here.

As Facebook looked out across the globe it wanted to conquer, it saw a mish-mash of unreliable networks, low resolution screens, and shitty processors. There were all manner of various flavor of Android, problems with local language support, confusion over pricing, and unreliable or non-existent power grids. There’s the question of how you make social connections between people with no address books, no email address, no university affiliation, and who are perhaps the very first person in their village to sign up for Facebook. The challenges weren’t just difficult, they were epic.

“When you look back at Facebook’s Web roots, we had an incredible amount of infrastructure,” explains Srinivasan. That infrastructure doesn’t really exist where the world is coming online via mobile networks: typically on feature phone or cheap Android handsets. Instead of broadband LTE, these phones often only have tenuous connections to 2.5G towers. They may only have the ability to charge up once a week, when a truck rolls through town with portable batteries. Data plans can often be eaten up by a single shared photo. Local language support is often non existent. If Facebook wants those users–and it does–it has to give them an entirely other experience than the one it delivers to North America.

Make It Snappy

While Facebook needed a new plan, it didn’t have to completely start from scratch. Thanks to an acquisition in 2011, Facebook already had a powerful asset in its possession capable of delivering a robust experience on a subpar device: Snaptu.

Snaptu was a tool designed to deliver smartphone-style Internet apps to old-fashioned cell phones. It launched in 2007, before the first iPhone, with the goal of trying to solve application fragmentation issues across a landscape of thousands of feature phones. It did this by essentially offloading all the processing functions to its own servers on the back end, and delivering images or text on demand–you might press the 1 key to view a new shared photo or message, for example. Facebook bought it in 2011, and brought its founder Ran Makavy from Tel Aviv to Menlo Park. Makavy, in turn, brought Snaptu’s immense know-how for working with all kinds of handsets and mobile networks. Today, the service is called Facebook for Everyphone, or FB4E, and it has more than 100 million active users. “What we try to do is to minimize data usage and increase speed,” explains Makavy.

Much of what Facebook learned with FB4E turned out to be directly applicable to Android devices it was now starting to see in the developing world–they share many of the fragmentation issues and hardware limitations (like small low resolution screens), and are running on the same networks Facebook already knew from its FB4E program. And in fact, it already even knows many of these customers from FB4E. As Makavy describes it, not only does FB4E not mind churn, it embraces it. They want the FB4E users to move on to smartphones, where they will have a better experience. “If we do an amazing job, you’re probably going to buy an Android.”

Snaptu founder Ran Makavy now runs FB4E, letting feature phone users use Facebook

Snaptu founder Ran Makavy now runs FB4E, letting feature phone users use Facebook

The problem was, when those Android users were coming online, Facebook didn’t have a clear idea of the conditions they could expect. “That inspired us to go into some of these markets and understand the steps for a brand new user to get the phone, get the SIM card, sign up for a data plan, and then actually sign up for Facebook,” says Srinivasan.

But because it wasn’t practical to send every engineer to every market, the company recreated those experiences inside its Menlo Park campus–this is the genesis of the Internet.org innovation lab. In essence, it took one of the most high-tech locations on earth, and turned it into a rural village without 3G service or electricity.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.wired.com/2014/02/facebook-plans-conquer-world-slew-low-end-handsets/

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