On Wednesday, Facebook announced its latest app, called Notify, which is able to serve up notifications from a variety of third-party content providers to smartphone users. To my mind, this app says two very interesting things about Facebook and its intentions. First, its ambitions to build what Bob O’Donnell has called a Meta OS; and second, its move beyond just content shared by friends.
The Growth of Facebook’s Meta OS
First, let’s look at the growth of Facebook’s attempt to build a quasi-operating system on top of the traditional third-party operating systems. What I’m referring to is Facebook has been slowly and steadily building many of the components of what would normally require a fully-fledged operating system, but solely through its own apps. Think about all the elements that make up a modern mobile operating system and how many of these have already been built or integrated by Facebook:
Notify is just the latest salvo in this battle to recreate the mobile OS at a level Facebook can control, since it has failed to make its own actual OS. As I installed and tested the new Notify app yesterday, I was particularly struck at how this app’s sole purpose is to recreate the notifications function on my phone, but within a Facebook-controlled app. Interestingly, all the notifications themselves send you to websites rather than to apps, and of course those websites open within the Notify browser rather than the device’s default browser (e.g. Safari on iOS). With many of these efforts, Facebook has either replaced competing services over time, or attempted to supplant native functionality of the OS on which its apps are running. Where Instagram once used the superior Foursquare location database, for example, it now uses Facebook’s somewhat inferior one. Where Facebook once sent users to standard web pages for news articles, it now keeps them captive within the new Instant Articles format exclusive to Facebook, and so on.
Why is Facebook doing all this? I think there are two answers. First, Facebook recognizes what users spend the most time on is content and, if it wants to capture more of a user’s time (because its business model essentially monetizes time spent on the platform), then it needs to keep them in its world longer. Second, I think Facebook also recognizes the two major actual mobile operating systems are building more and more functionality that once resided in third-party apps into their own ecosystems, whether that’s Apple with Music and News, or Google with Google Now.
Going Beyond what Friends Share
The first of those drivers also drives another strategy we’re seeing from Facebook — a clear intent to go beyond just the content shared by our own friends. As a social network, Facebook certainly began as a place where we connected with people we knew. Content shared by these individuals (regardless of how well we actually know them in real life) continues to be the vast majority of what we see and consume within the Facebook experience. However, as long as we’re limited to only the things our friends share, there’s a natural ceiling on how much content we can be shown we’ll actually find compelling. Even as Facebook has begun to filter our news feeds algorithmically, it’s also whittled down the amount of content we’ll actually see. This helps to explain why, even though social media use is enormously popular, actual time spent still lags far behind other forms of content consumption.
If Facebook is to get us to spend more time in its various properties, it needs to broaden the range of content we can be shown and make consuming this content in its apps more compelling. I think this is a major driver behind Instant Articles and Facebook’s huge Video push over the last year, especially the new Videos tab Facebook is testing. All of this is intended to show you content that hasn’t been explicitly shared by your own friends and, in the process, expand the range of content you might be exposed to as a way to keep you on Facebook for longer.
Notify should then be seen as an extension of this strategy. Today, Facebookers likely use the company’s various apps in one of two main ways: either they dip into them periodically throughout the day to see what’s new from their friends or they visit one of the apps in response to a notification about something one of their friends has done. The Notify app creates a whole new category of events which could drive you to one of Facebook’s apps and therefore could get you visiting more frequently and potentially staying for longer once you’re there. For now, Facebook isn’t directly monetizing the Notify app, but it’s easy to see how it could in time. And of course, there’s also a virtuous circle of sharing that content back into the core Facebook experience for others to consume.
The Strategic Rationale is Clear, but is User Appeal?
So, there are at least two very good reasons for Facebook to launch something like the Notify app – helping flesh out Facebook’s Meta OS and getting users to visit Facebook properties more frequently and stay longer. But what’s not as clear is the user appeal. After all, their phone already does notifications and the vast majority of the content providers that are part of the Notify app also have their own apps which could serve up notifications. Why would someone want to engage with this content through Notify and its built-in browser rather than through dedicated apps or even Apple News or Safari on iOS? The worry here is that Notify, like Paper and other Facebook apps before it, has a solid strategic rationale, but doesn’t end up appealing to users at all.