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Who's on mobile first? Google, Facebook race to get there first

October 12, 2012|By Jessica Guynn
  • The Google company logo is seen on an Apple iPhone 4
The Google company logo is seen on an Apple iPhone 4 (Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg…)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Who was first on "mobile first"?

Internet giants Google and Facebook have embraced being "mobile first," an industry term that means placing a priority on building apps for mobile devices, not Web apps.

Asked what the next big thing would be during an onstage conversation this week with All Things D's Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt replied: "Mobility."

"I call it mobile first," he said.

And, in fact, he was among the first to call it that.  

During his first keynote address to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2010, Schmidt declared that Google had developed a new "mobile first" culture.

He urged developers outside of Google to "work on mobile first" too, predicting smartphone sales would soon overtake personal computers.

"Our programmers are doing work on mobile first," he said at the time. "We understand that the new rule is mobile first."

Google has taken mobile so seriously, it created its own Android mobile software. And it has gotten into the hardware business too.

Not that Facebook is claiming credit for coining "mobile first," but it too began calling itself a "mobile first" company over the summer, on the heels of its disastrous initial public stock offering. The social network is looking to reassure investors jittery that more than half (600 million out of 1 billion) of its monthly active users use Facebook via mobile devices, but that in its regulatory filings prior to the IPO, Facebook acknowledged that mobile usage doesn't generate any "meaningful revenue."

The "mobile first" shift came straight from Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who now first reviews new features and services on a mobile device rather than on the desktop. He was also the one who brokered the billion-dollar deal to buy mobile photo-sharing app Instagram, which at the time had 860,000 daily active users. Six months later, Instagram has 11 million daily active users, according to AppData. And Facebook has replaced its clunky iPhone app with a new and improved one.

"With everything we talk about, mobile has to be at the center of it," David Fischer, Facebook's vice president of business and marketing partnerships, told The Times in July. "It's really important within the company that everyone recognizes the importance of it and that we march fast in that direction."

The "mobile first" movement was kick-started by influential analyst Mary Meeker, now a partner with Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who published a report in 2009 predicting that more people would soon connect to the Web on mobile devices than on personal computers. Soon entrepreneurs were building, as New York venture capitalist and blogger Fred Wilson called them, “mobile first” companies.

"Basically any company that went full bore on the iPhone in the early days were de facto mobile first companies," said Matt Brezina, chief executive of Sincerely, a mobile-only service that sends postcards to family and friends. "Instagram comes to mind as a blatant example. Their website did nothing. We too have been following this mantra. The reason I like mobile first is: People always have their phones with them."

Another high-profile example is Dave Morin, an early member of the Facebook team who left in January 2010 to start Path, which is considered one of the "mobile first" pioneers. Google tried to buy Path for more than $100 million. And Morin’s old boss, Zuckerberg, raised eyebrows recently when he told Fortune magazine: "I'm looking forward to working more closely together."

Google and Facebook each rose to dominance on the desktop. Now they are racing to figure out how to put mobile first. The fear: Upstarts that can quickly attract millions of users might beat them to the punch.

Stewart Alsop, a partner in the venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners, in June wrote in a blog post entitled "Why Facebook bought Instagram" that Facebook was smart to buy Instagram, the "poster child" for building products to work first and foremost on a smartphone. It was essentially an acknowledgment that Internet companies are facing tough challenges shrinking the experience to the smaller screen.

"Facebook is not a mobile first company," Alsop said. "If I was as smart and successful as Mark Zuckerberg, I would be thinking a lot about how you get your company to adopt a mobile-first approach."

Twitter is another company emphasizing mobile. It has a leg up. It was originally created as a service that could naturally be used on a mobile phone. And it says 60% of its active users access the service on a mobile device. It also says it already makes more money on mobile than on the desktop, though it hasn’t provided any numbers. Research firm EMarketer predicts that Twitter’s 2012 mobile ad revenue will be nearly $130 million. That’s almost double the projection for Facebook.

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