The second coming of Facebook

The second coming of Facebook

Back in 2010 Mark Zuckerberg made a very bad decision. Instead of building separate apps for iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, Nokia devices, and, yes, even Microsoft phones, he put his engineers to work designing a version of Facebook that could operate on any smartphone.

In effect, he was betting that as different operating systems jostled for control of mobile devices, standalone apps would go away and soon we would surf websites on our phones, just as we do on PCs.

Zuckerberg was wrong. Google`s Android and Apple`s iOS quickly became the dominant mobile operating systems, and Facebook`s applications, which were built with its CEO`s web-centric worldview in mind, didn`t work well on either platform.

They were buggy and slow, crashing often. A 2011 update garnered 19,000 one-star reviews in the Apple App Store within the first month. "It`s probably one of the biggest mistakes we`ve ever made," Zuckerberg tells me during an interview at Facebook`s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters in late March.

Just six years after it had been founded, Facebook(FB) -- the company that had ushered in the social-networking era -- was missing the next big shift in technology. Around the world consumers were abandoning laptops for mobile devices, busying themselves with a dizzying array of downloaded apps designed specifically for small touchscreens and people on the go. (Have you ever seen anyone play Angry Birds on a desktop?) Facebook, meanwhile, had only one engineer dedicated to the iPhone; most of its mobile team was coding for mobile web browsers.

Hidden among all the Silicon Valley success stories there are hundreds more companies that fail to catch the next wave and die. Zuckerberg was determined not to be among them. But to address his mobile problem, the wunderkind who had tasted enormous success so early in his career had to come to terms with failure, and he had to make sweeping structural and cultural changes at the young company -- moves that often went against his instincts.

Instead of going faster (virtually a religion at Facebook), mobile developers had to take a pause on new releases. Instead of doubling down on the mobile web, they had to embrace apps. And instead of trying to reach the broadest possible audience with a killer product, Facebook ultimately would have to pick one operating system to show off what it could really do in mobile. "I can`t overstate how much we had to retool the whole company`s development processes," he says.


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