After building apps for the better part of 10 weeks, I have one observation about Facebook.

The jury is still out.

Yep.  That's right.  After almost $500m in investment and all the buzz a new technology could want over the last few years, I'd contend that as of now, the future of Facebook is no more certain than it was a year ago.

Why do I say that?  I don't think their strategy has evolved significantly enough to ensure future stratospheric growth.  I don't think they've internalized what it takes to succeed with older demographics.  I don't think they are doing the things necessary to achieve another level of growth.

We've observed a lot about Facebook usage across the roughly 100 people we've invited to the Private Beta of MinutesNotice.  When your first app is built for Facebook, you tend to pay attention to every detail of how people use it.  Our takeaways?

  1. Younger people use Facebook regularly,
  2. Older people sign up for it, but then don't come back regularly,
  3. Power users increasingly want to access social features wherever they are (i.e. not just within Facebook's walled garden),
  4. Power users also want their personal data to be portable, while Facebook to date has built their business model around a closed & proprietary system,
  5. Enterprise users are just now starting to think about how social features can be used within their corporate networks.  I haven't seen the term "enterprise social portal" used often, but it makes sense that the next evolution of internal enterprise portals will integrate social features to improve context & relevance for its users.  (FWIW, we are beginning to see consulting opportunities in this area and fortunately we have the expertise to do it.)

I will talk more about the rise of the enterprise social portal in a future post.

But back to the original point I was making… whether they realize it or not, I really think Facebook is at a crossroads of sorts.  Growth opportunities for the social network are in older demographics, but points 2, 4, and 5 are big problems for Facebook.  Fail to improve in #2 & #4 and become relevant in #5, and Facebook doesn't really ever become more than it is now.  Why?  Well, Facebook will continue to be a toy for kids and nothing more.  The apps will continue to suck, and there will be little to no integration with other existing software or web services.

They have been taken to task for the better part of 9 months over their "proprietary" philosophy.  And while many of the people attacking Facebook have an agenda of their own, I think these folks have a good point… people don't want to enter data in multiple places to satisfy the various social circles they are in.  As a user, I'd rather enter data once & just designate what I want to reveal to people in my various lives (at work, at play, in my broader professional community, as an alumnus, with my family, etc.).  I'd also like to access my social features in the applications and web sites I use regularly.  Herein lies the demographic difference… as you get older, more of your "social networks" simply aren't on Facebook.  Social networks have established means of communication (e-mail, Sharepoint and other content management systems, web sites, etc.) that simply won't be supplanted by even the best "social platform".  Not anytime soon at least.

The folks at Facebook seem to think that users need to come to them.  But alternatives are getting better, they are open, and they are fighting for users.  If I were at Facebook, I'd have to figure out a way to bring Facebook to the user — *not* the other way around.

In my humble opinion, Facebook fails to be a platform when people don't instinctively (or automatically) log into the site do to things they need to do.  I don't instinctively log into Facebook every morning… and I'm building apps for Facebook!!!  I can see how Facebook is a "nice to have" but not essential component of peoples' lives.

Facebook has a small window to become the standard of social software.  But I think that window is closing.  Satisfying the needs of older demographics will be critical to take Facebook to the next level.  What that means is that the skills necessary to build Facebook to this point are different than the skills necessary to make it "the next Microsoft" or "the next Google".  We'll see if/when they begin to make those tough decisions.