In a matter of just over half a decade, Facebook has swelled its user base to more than 500 million. But the ramp-up to the next 500 million would be much slower if Facebook were to bank only on access over PCs and smart phones–the devices that help users connect to social networking sites via Internet.

No wonder then that the social networking giant has clearly exhibited over the recent past that it is keen to grow its user base through non-Internet access devices i.e. the less smart feature phones. Facebook acquiring the mobile apps developer Snaptu, reported early this week, reinforces the move in this regard.

Snaptu, saying its stated goal was “to provide useful and innovative services to the 95 percent of mobile users that don’t have access to advanced smart phones,” noted on its official blog, “Earlier this year, we announced the launch of a new Facebook mobile application to give people a great mobile experience on a broad range of feature phones. The Facebook for feature-phones app currently works on more than 2,500 devices… And joining Facebook means we can make an even bigger impact on the world.”

India being the country with the second largest number of mobile subscribers globally, with a large feature phone base, would present a significant opportunity. In May last year, for instance, Aircel started an SMS-based Facebook access service, which enabled Facebook access through SMS. As part of this service, users could see and post status updates, comment, like, or poke through an SMS.

Facebook has been extending SMS-based access service for users of other mobile service providers as well.

More recently, this January, Aircel tied up with Facebook to launch ‘Facebook Voice Update’ service. For this, users have to dial a specified number and record their message with Aircel using IVR. The voice message would then appear on the user’s Facebook page. Of course, the user’s mobile number should be registered with Facebook and the service would be chargeable.

Again, this is an Internet access-less service, and like the SMS-based one, is targeted at the vast 2G user base in India.

Going forward, one would expect more such innovative Internet-less services to be offered by the industry. At the same time, it is also expected that many feature phone users will graduate into smart phone users. Logically, a feature-phone Facebook user today would be a potential smart-phone Facebook user tomorrow, so it’s good to lock in feature-phone users today.

Incidentally, according to IDC, by 2015, smart phones are expected to grow eight times as fast as feature phones to reach 359 million units. Three in five mobile phones shipped in 2015 will be smart phones, up from one in five in 2010. Also, a lot more devices are expected to come in at a lower price point on Android, which will help not only pull up demand in emerging markets, but also make feature phone users across all markets consider upgrading to smart phones.

Mobile phone shipments, made up of feature phones and smart phones, will rise by a five-year compound annual growth rate of 34 per cent in the Asia/Pacific excluding Japan (APEJ) region, nearly doubling to 942 million units from 551 million units shipped in 2010. Both feature phones and smart phones had a strong showing in 2010. Feature phones grew 17 per cent year-on-year in 2010, says IDC.

Facebook says there are more than 200 million active users currently accessing the service through their mobile devices. This user base could witness a ramp-up if the Facebook adoption by feature-phone users gathers steam.
(As published in Deccan Chronicle, March 24, 2011, header changed.)

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