Facebook's Biggest Problem: Mobile

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal this past weekend, you would have thought that the biggest issue facing Facebook ( FB) is whether it should stay listed on Nasdaq or move to the New York Stock Exchange.

This issue is a total sideshow, and I would fear for the company if CEO Mark Zuckerberg was spending any time thinking about it.

No, the big issue dogging Facebook these days is the shift to mobile from the desktop.

Many speculate this shift happened much faster in the second quarter than anyone had expected, and that it was responsible for the reduced guidance in the days before Facebook's initial public offering that spooked big institutional investors and hammered the stock.

We'll find out how true that is later this month when Facebook has its first earnings call as a public company. It will be whatever the equivalent of "Must See TV" is for corporate conference calls.

There's already good evidence piling up that the rapid shift to mobile from desktop is happening at "blazing fast" speeds.

The biggest evidence seems to be coming from Facebook itself. The company keeps providing "tips" to various newspapers and tech blogs that it really has a fix on this problem.


It started last week. Facebook invited The New York Times' tech blogger Nick Bilton to witness the next version of the company's mobile app, which will be available sometime this summer.

Bilton discusses how -- despite being one of the most popular apps in Apple's ( AAPL) App Store -- the current app's slow speed is maddening most users.

Bilton explains that the reason for this is that the app heavily relies on HTML5. The new one is built in "Objective-C." The takeaway for readers and Facebook mobile users is: Don't worry -- we've got a bead on this.

Today, I read a fascinating piece by Mike Isaac in All Things D where various Facebook folks articulate to him how well-thought-out their mobile strategy is. This all comes straight from the top apparently (when doesn't it at Facebook?). There are all kinds of assurances that well-qualified people have stepped into the gap left by the departing CTO.

I also really enjoyed hearing from one of the product managers that Facebook's "first pivot" was becoming "mobile-first." That says so much. It is meant to convey that everyone who works in Facebook engineering thinks "first" of how some feature is going to look on the mobile app instead of how it's going to look on the Web site.

It's also priceless that whoever said this thinks it's a sign of maturity to describe this shift as Facebook's "first pivot." Only someone who's embedded deep in the Valley echo chamber thinks it sounds intelligent to use the word "pivot."

It's not an existential crisis at Facebook, this whole movement away from our core product to some new mobile environment where users may not want to come back to our site, this person appears to be saying. It's a pivot.


When you use the word "pivot," you're downplaying some crisis that you're going through. Why didn't all companies throughout history that faced a market moving away from their core offering figure out this pivot thing? Betamax should have just pivoted! What were they thinking?

Also interesting to me in the All Things D piece was how the new and improved mobile team at Facebook is apparently embracing how mobile is fracturing Facebook's monolithic "platform" into itty-bitty pieces. You now will have Facebook Messenger as an app and Facebook Camera as an app. Hey, it's a solution to the slow-moving main service. Just break it up.

Except this is one of those reverse synergies where the separate parts are less than the whole. If I'm going to go into my "blazing fast" Facebook Messenger itty-bitty app, maybe I'm going to start comparing that piece of the Facebook experience to iMessage. I'll probably conclude after a little while that I don't need the hassle of dealing with Facebook Messenger over time and that I should just default to iMessage.

But if I stop using different parts of the Facebook "platform" over time, then what is Facebook in this new mobile world?

I'm starting to feel a little bit too much like Jean-Paul Sartre sitting on Paris' Left Bank, so let me just say it seems Facebook is really worried about mobile. Otherwise, it wouldn't be working so hard to convince us that it has the problem taken care of. But does it?

It reminds me a bit of when Research In Motion ( RIMM) was getting hammered in the press 18 months ago and its co-CEOs decided to leak to The Wall Street Journal that they were working on a tablet to compete with Apple's iPad. The stock jumped the next day on that news. Eighteen months later, where are we?

At the time of publication, Jackson held shares of AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Eric Jackson is founder and Managing Member of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd. In January 2007, Jackson started the world's first Internet-based campaign to increase shareholder value at Yahoo!, leading to a change in CEOs in 2007. He also spoke out in favor of Yahoo!'s accepting Microsoft's buyout offer in 2008. Global Proxy Watch named Jackson as one of its 10 "Stars" who positively influenced international corporate governance and shareowner value in 2007.

Prior to founding Ironfire Capital, Jackson was President and CEO of Jackson Leadership Systems, Inc., a leadership, strategy, and governance consulting firm. He completed his Ph.D. in the Management Department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, with a specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Governance, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.

He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at VoiceGenie Technologies, a software firm now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2004, Jackson founded the Young Patrons' Circle at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is now the second-largest social and philanthropic group of its kind in North America, raising $500,000 annually for the museum. You can follow Jackson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ericjackson or @ericjackson.

You can contact Eric by emailing him at eric.jackson@thestreet.com.

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