Facebook Is Harvesting Apple’s And Google’s Developers

Developers who want to make money may want to spend less time with Apple and Google and more time with Facebook. Though both Google and Apple trumpet their vast app ecosystems, the reality is that it’s hard for app developers to stand out on these platforms and, hence, egregiously difficult for such developers to make a living. 

Unless they want to focus on Facebook, that is. As VisionMobile analyst Stijn Schuermans highlights, while app developers will continue to depend on Google and Apple for distribution, Facebook’s mobile developer strategy is better suited to help them reach users, get discovered and make money.

Mobile’s Crowd Of Individuals

Apple has paid developers over $15 billion since launching the App Store in July 2008. While Google’s Android platform has not been as generous historically, it’s catching up. But neither is a particularly great way to make money for most developers, as VisionMobile’s data indicates:

It’s a good thing mobile app developers say they’re not in it for the money, because the reality is that the average per-app revenue is under $4,000, according to VisionMobile’s 2012 developer survey. 

Given the difficulty of standing out on “brutally competitive” mobile app stores like Apple’s App Store or Google Play, it’s easy to see why developers struggle to make much money from their work. There are more than a million apps on the App Store: how likely is it that yours will be the next Angry Birds?

Enter Facebook

Sensing an opportunity, Facebook has pounced. While Facebook used to get knocked for being too dependent on desktop revenue, the company has completely shifted its strategy so that today it generates more than 60% of its revenues from mobile. The heart of Facebook’s mobile strategy is developers.

And the way to appeal to developers, says analyst Ben Thompson, is money:

One of the key lessons I learned working with developers is that, at the end of the day, everything pales in comparison to the question: “How do I make money?” Developer tools are important, languages are important, exposure is important, but if there isn’t money to be made—or if more money can be made elsewhere—then you’re not going to get very far in getting developers on your platform.

Facebook’s mobile developer strategy is comprised of three components, according to Schuermans, each geared toward making developers more money:

1. Building A Mega SDK

Facebook has been acquiring companies at a torrid pace these past few years, but not for their developer communities. As VisionMobile founder Andreas Constantinou rightly posits, ecosystems aren’t for sale:

Instead of buying developers, Facebook has been acquiring essential tools to serve a growing community of developers, including Monoidics (bug checking), Parse (back-end as a service), Airlock (A/B testing framework) and more. To these acquisitions Facebook has added homegrown services to support app promotion, monetization and re-engagement. 

Facebook, in other words, is gearing up to make app development easy and profitable for mobile developers, recognizing that traditional app stores have done little but provide a weak app discovery mechanism for developers. 

2. Making Facebook The Center Of Users’ Digital Identities

It’s interesting to note that identity topped Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s list of the essential elements of a “cross-platform platform” at the recent F8 developer conference:

Identity is crucial, as Schuermans stresses, because it keeps users engaged with Facebook even if they aren’t actively sharing: “If users don’t just use Facebook as their social network, but also to access scores of unrelated services, then it will be hard for users to drop Facebook entirely.”

By making Facebook the center of our digital lives, Facebook makes itself an essential, profitable place for developers to build. 

3. Out-Googling Google For Effective Mobile Advertising

In Facebook’s quest to sell user reach, engagement and hyper-targeting to advertisers, thereby enriching its developer community and itself, Facebook may be out-Googling Google. In particular, Facebook’s App Links builds bridges between apps, thereby creating a new, searchable application web to rival the non-app web. 

Schuermans writes:

In the most optimistic case, Applinks will allow Facebook to build the PageRank of mobile, a head-on attack on its arch rival. (Facebook has already kindly offered to host an index of all applinks.) At worst, Applinks can substantially boost Facebook’s app install business (CPI) through affiliate marketing schemes, earning revenue on each referral.

All Your Developers Are Belong To Us

Facebook, once the mobile laggard, is now a mobile leader, particularly with developers. While it still has a long way to go, its strategy of making it easy for developers to build for its platform, coupled with its efforts to make applications an effective advertising target, is winning over developers and stealing a march on Google and Apple. 

Image of Mark Zuckerberg by Flickr user kris krüg, CC 2.0

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