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Facebook’s mobile news plan paints a fat target on Yahoo

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and chief executive during a Facebook press event in Menlo Park, California, April 4, 2013.


It's not surprising to learn that Facebook is developing a news service for mobile platforms. The driving forces are coming from several vectors.

The shift from desktop browser to mobile app is well underway, but mobile is still green-field enough to warrant a land-grab attempt.

Facebook's natural rival in the overall scheme of things is Google, but Yahoo's market in news represents a juicy, perhaps winnable, target. News aggregation, curation, and presentation is Yahoo's thing, and its front page, section heads, and certain specialty pages have remained highly profitable properties. Facebook may be betting that Yahoo, not having a record of being as nimble as some of its peers, may miss-execute the transition to mobile and so leave an opening to colonize the burgeoning market for mobile news distribution.

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Yahoo's old-timey portal model makes it a destination for many people familiar with the layout. Readers know where to find things, and they are offered a variety of content teases to click on, adding serendipity to a well-known landscape. Of all the section heads, news is one of the biggest in terms of total views. Finance is huge as well, and sports is non-negligible. Yahoo is all about layers of detail by content category.

Yahoo already has its own nice news reader for mobile. I downloaded the Apple iPhone version and took it for a spin. It offers a "visual" version with a dynamic screen that scrolls semi-transparent headlines over large photos as well as a "classic" version that just gives a list of headlines to the right of thumbnail photos, all in fixed format for faster scrolling.

But Yahoo's having the app available and being able to transition all its customers from desktop to mobile are two different things.

Facebook sees an opportunity in becoming more portal-like. Since the glue that holds Facebook together up through now has been interaction between people who more or less know each other – many-to-many content generation, if you'd like – there's a relative lack of central content, material developed or curated by the site. Facebook needs a reason to keep people's attention. Their friends may not be enough. And Internet news content, although mostly featuring stories shorter than those from the print era, are longer in form than most socially generated content. People like to follow things, not just people, giving them an excuse to spend more time on the site, which is a metric Facebook would like to lift, mobile being the richest source of future advertising dollars. Facebook does appear to have its eye on where the puck is going.

Tablets in particular represent a tempting platform for all the companies targeting mobile news reading. The screen is big enough to give a good experience in terms of font size and words per page, but the device is still highly mobile. The clean layout associated with the platform suits it ideally for reading. And tablet is now the fastest-growing device market, according to separate studies by Canalys and Adobe.

It is interesting to note that against the backdrop of Facebook's manoeuvring to position itself better for news reading sits Google's decision to abandon Google Reader, the news aggregator that the company launched in 2005 and will shut off definitively next week. Google had eight years to tinker with the formula, but was unable to build Reader into a sticky platform on the level of Yahoo News.

Of course, there are other news aggregators of all sorts with loyal followings (e.g., YCombinator's Hacker News). But individual publishers like Dow Jones, Forbes, The New York Times, and the New Yorker necessarily focus on their own content. It's up to general sites to gather all the threads together into a broad offering. And so, at the confluence of wide usage and centrally offered content lie a few companies with the potential to increase their presence as destination sites.

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Yahoo is arguably the incumbent. Google seems to be retrenching. Google Apps Browser, which gives iPhone users access to more than a score of Google apps, including news, is dependent on the moribund Reader. Feedly, a spunky upstart, is gaining traction as an alternative to Reader on mobile platforms. Microsoft is still trying to field a viable mobile strategy and interest people in its news platform, MSN. Apple seems to be avoiding the content play for now.

But people like to do different things on different sites. It may seem obvious, but they like to watch videos on YouTube, shop on Taobao and, read about topics in depth on Wikipedia, find quick information on Google, read about favourite subjects on Yahoo, find out what their friends are doing on Facebook, interact on a serious business level on LinkedIn, and ping and be pinged with tidbits on Twitter.

Facebook may find – the way Google already has – that it's not so easy to get people to come to a site for a reason beyond their original purpose. But given the potential market growth, one can't fault the social network for trying.

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