Free Calling For iPhones: Is This The Real Facebook Phone?

fbmessenger

Facebook Messenger app

After testing a free voice calling feature for its Messenger app in Canada recently, Facebook has quietly made the feature available in the U.S. as well–to iPhone users, anyway. Now, according to The Verge, iPhone users can make free calls using a WiFi connection, with no carrier data charges, or using their data plan.

It’s hardly the first free voice calling app. Google Voice has offered this for a long time, and there’s also Gmail Chat. Neither is limited to iPhone users or, of course, Facebook members. There’s also Skype, which allows you to make free calls to other Skype users.

Given that most people with a cell phone have voice minutes by default, often so many that they don’t end up using them up each month, this isn’t something a lot of people are probably clamoring for. But for Facebook, it offers several benefits. In fact, it could provide nearly all of the benefits of the long-rumored Facebook phone–the notion of which was quashed by none other than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself last year:

* People will end up using Facebook more. In other words, it’s one more way, along with yesterday’s announcement of its Graph Search service, that Facebook is making itself not just entertaining, but useful. That’s key to keeping the 1 billion-plus people from gradually wandering away from what is, for all its appeal, the biggest time-waster online.

* It’s another mode of communications. And communications–that is, being social–is what Facebook is all about.

* It may be especially appealing to young people, who often have limited voice or data plans. And Facebook, whose membership now tends to be older than newer rival services, needs to keep young people engaged.

* It’s a way for Facebook to make sure people turn to the company’s apps on their mobile devices rather than to rivals’. Facebook has recently managed to ramp up its mobile ads, to as much as 20% of overall ad revenues. So this is less of a concern when it comes to making money directly through apps. But Facebook remains in catch-up mode in mobile–for pete’s sake, its biggest project in years, Graph Search, has no mobile component at the outset. So it has to make sure it offers useful features, especially those native to smartphones and tablets, or it could gradually become less relevant to the rising number of people for whom the phone is their computer.

Nobody really needs an actual Facebook phone, because apps make every phone a Facebook phone. Free voice calling is just one way to make sure it remains that way.

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Why Are TV Makers Pushing Cadillacs When We Really Want Ferraris?

US-IT-CES-ELECTRONICS

Samsung shows off huge new TV (Photo: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

Are TV makers going the way of Detroit in the 1960s? In what many, including those who didn’t bother to attend, are calling a boring Consumer Electronics Show, the star attractions seem to be leviathans such as Samsung’s and Sony’s new 84-inch TV sets. Even they apparently is not amazing enough, because Samsung is promising a 110-inch model later this year.

Size isn’t the only way they’re big, either. Those 84-inchers, which one Sony executive had the audacity to call “Ferraris,” costs $25,000, more than I will ever pay for a car, let alone a TV. And they have more pixels than my never-acute eyesight can ever process–even if there were content created for them, which there isn’t.

Seriously, guys, I’m not buying another TV for a very long time. The screen I’ve got is as big as I can fit in my living room, and that’s not going to change. Even if I did have a bigger living room, a big-ass 84-inch TV would feel faintly embarrassing, like tractor tires on a little pickup.

What’s more, not a single Smart TV feature, no matter how cool, is going to sway me to pony upwards of a thousand dollars for a new set to replace a perfectly fine screen. I’ve got TiVo, I’ve got Apple TV, I’ve got Roku, I’ve got Google TV, and probably there’s some other add-on device I can’t even remember. All of them offer more features and apps than I will ever use.

All of this makes me think of those road hogs of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Detroit insisted on manufacturing shortly before those cheap little imports ate their lunch. The fact is that more and more TV watching is occurring on much smaller screens, especially tablets. The sofa spuds of today don’t drive Cadillacs. We want Ferraris, or even Priuses. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. I viewed them more as an agenda for what to watch for in the next 12 months than as firm predictions.

But it was too easy sometimes to state the obvious so they’d end up right by year-end. So this year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers (and if you’ve got ‘em, sound off in the comments below!):

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Will native ads reach broad scale? Well, perhaps they will on platforms such as Facebook and–well, Facebook–that already reach hundreds of millions of people. Sponsored Stories clearly have gotten some traction, even on mobile devices. But marketers and agencies won’t create multiple versions of campaigns to serve every new ad format that publishers claim work better than banner ads. Which brings up a related question:

* Will any standards emerge around the social gestures that most of these native ads embody? That’s really the only thing that will ensure that marketers can reach scale across many sites. That wouldn’t be in the interest of big companies such as Facebook and Google, which benefit from proprietary ad formats that can reach their huge audiences. But standards, whether it’s banners of a particular size or ad networks, create a more liquid market that helps hundreds of publishers survive as they provide marketers scalable opportunities to reach big audiences. So are there atomic units of social gestures that could carry brand messages across multiple native ad formats without destroying the appeal of native formats? Maybe there’s a technological fix for this, but it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done.

* Will the long-predicted shakeout in ad tech companies finally happen? It didn’t really occur last year despite a few middling-big acquisitions by Oracle, Salesforce.com, and Google. This year, perhaps new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer will corral a few to try to recharge the company’s ad business. Google, Adobe, and IBM have built out “stacks” of ad tech, but no doubt they can each fill out their offerings. Then there’s Facebook, whose ad exchange is likely to need fleshing out. But even if they each write checks for a few three-letter acronym startups apiece, don’t call it a shakeout. Given the rapid evolution of advertising technologies, and the reality that using data to refine advertising is still in its infancy, it’s a good bet that more companies will still be created than disappear. That should keep the Lumascape as crowded as ever.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

* Can Larry Page keep Google relevant in the social media age? So far, the no-longer-new CEO has at least kept Google’s mainstream ad business humming. Page has outlasted a year or so of missteps, missed opportunities, antitrust investigations, and bum vocal chords, and arguably emerged with a company that’s leaner, more focused, and more potent than ever. Not only does the recent antitrust victory appear to leave it free to compete unimpeded, but Android is doing better than ever even vs. a very strong Apple ecosystem and Google is about to emerge as a powerhouse in the other half of online advertising: display ads, whether on the desktop or on mobile devices. Page’s big challenge looms as big as ever, though: Can Google play in the social Web vs. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and more? I don’t know, but this may be the year Page has to provide a more definitive answer.

* Will TV and Web video ads finally come together on Connected TVs, tablets, or other devices? Sure, at some point. Video is video no matter where it runs, and while personal computer users bristle at pre-roll video ads, I’m betting viewers are more amenable to various kinds of ads when they view video on Internet-connected TVs or tablets. And even on PCs, YouTube’s TrueView ads, which you can skip after a few seconds, have proven successful to the tune of several billion dollars last year. Traditional TV advertising will continue to thrive thanks to unassailable economics of the cable-content cabal. But given extensive work by Nielsen, comScore, and others to provide metrics that can extend across TV and the Web, the latter may finally get some serious coin from brand marketers–if not this year, pretty soon thereafter. Especially if Apple works its magic on the television.

* Will Facebook really tick us off with a new feature or privacy “improvement”? Is Mark Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook? Nonetheless, Facebook’s well-worn playbook of pushing beyond social comfort levels, then pulling back just a bit, means we’ll probably see privacy norms get stretched once again.

* Will Apple ever make a real splash in advertising? Don’t bet your iPad on it. I think even the post-Steve Jobs Apple still views ads the way a lot of Silicon Valley still does (mostly in error): ineffective, inelegant, and crass. Apple itself can make great ads, but selling them is an entirely different matter.

* Will Amazon make a real splash in advertising? Oh yeah. All the pieces are in place, from a huge shopping-focused audience to a nearly bulletproof technology infrastructure. Again, it won’t set the world on fire this year, but we’re likely to see the smoke.

* Will Marissa Mayer turn around Yahoo? Not this year. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see signs of a real turn for the first time in about five CEOs. But the real turnaround will take years–if Yahoo’s board has the patience. That’s still an iffy bet worth about as much as a share of Yahoo stock.

* Will I ever figure out the appeal of Reddit and BuzzFeed? Gosh, I hope so. I get that these guys attract massive traffic, but neither site does much for me. Reddit, in particular, seems so random that I guess it must be the channel-surfing of today’s generation, only with somewhat more worthwhile nuggets. But for pete’s sake, there’s so much noise for the signal you get, and even the most popular noise can be many hours, days, or even months old. Go ahead, call me a geezer who doesn’t get it. You wouldn’t be the first, and maybe you’re right. So I will continue to click over to them until I see the light, my brain explodes, or the next phenom looks more worth wasting my remaining years on.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

How Did I Do On My 2012 Predictions?

2012: The Year Ahead

Photo: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It’s that time of year: time to reflect on the past year, time to get wasted and watch a glass ball smash into the ground, time for people like me who foolishly offered predictions for the past year to face the music. So here’s how I did on my 2012 predictions:

* Facebook goes public, but won’t start an IPO landslide: Bingo! Indeed, Facebook’s ill-received IPO led to a months-long drought in IPOs as investors realized they were not a sure route to riches. The situation may be improving, but mostly for enterprise more than consumer companies.

* Facebook’s ad business booms–but not at Google’s expense: Bingo! While Facebook’s revenues slowed even before its IPO as it continued to experiment with new ad formats and scrambled to provide mobile ad units, ad revenues have since accelerated, up 36% in the third quarter over last year. At the same time, while Google’s revenue growth disappointed investors in the third quarter, it was mostly thanks to the impact of its Motorola acquisition, not a shortfall in its core ad business.

* Image ads finally find a home on the Web: Half-right. YouTube proved there’s a real market for TV-like video ads if you give viewers the choice to view them or not, as its revenues were expected to hit $3.6 billion in 2012, according to Citibank. But Facebook’s struggles to attract brand advertising despite a TV-scale audience, while partially successful, show that no one has yet come up with brand ad formats that work consistently and at large scale online. Or at least brands, which still spend most of their money on TV ads, don’t believe it yet. And they write the checks.

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Instagram Backs Off New Photo Policy–But Here’s How It Might Really Make Money

Image representing Kevin Systrom as depicted i...

Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom (Image: CrunchBase)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Not surprisingly, the Facebook-owned mobile photo-posting service Instagram has backed off the language in its new privacy and terms of service policies that set off a firestorm online. The worry was that people’s Instagram photos could be sold without users getting compensated (never really true) or could be used in ads (which did certainly look likely).

Apparently, neither will be the case, at least for now. Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom just posted on the company’s blog under the title “Thank you, and we’re listening”:

I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion. As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret. So I’d like to address specific concerns we’ve heard from everyone:

Advertising on Instagram From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

Systrom then provides clues to how Instagram might really make money from advertising on the site:

To provide context, we envision a future where both users and brands alike may promote their photos & accounts to increase engagement and to build a more meaningful following. Let’s say a business wanted to promote their account to gain more followers and Instagram was able to feature them in some way. In order to help make a more relevant and useful promotion, it would be helpful to see which of the people you follow also follow this business. In this way, some of the data you produce — like the actions you take (eg, following the account) and your profile photo — might show up if you are following this business.

The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question. Our main goal is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience. Instead, we want to create meaningful ways to help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time.

So it seems that whatever advertising Instagram does, it will be quite a bit like Facebook’s Sponsored Stories, or even precisely like them. Although that won’t comfort people who don’t like the possibility that their actions can become an ad, they’re already subject to those terms if they use Facebook.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Instagram follow Facebook’s well-worn playbook, which calls for the company to push the envelope, then back off a bit, rinse, repeat. But for now, pending future changes, your cute cat photos are safe from becoming ads for your local pet salon.

Google Cuts ‘Fat Finger’ Accidental Clicks On Mobile Ads

gmobileadFrom my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Advertisers have long known about a problem with mobile ads: fat fingers.

That is, people accidentally click an ad on those little smartphone screens thanks to clumsy digits (or purposely big or hard-to-avoid ads). Realizing their mistake, they back up instantly, but the advertiser gets charged while getting only a wisp of attention from a consumer they probably didn’t want to reach anyway. Today, Google is introducing a tweak to in-app image ads that should reduce those unintentional clicks considerably.

It’s a big issue. Recent studies indicate that up to about 40% of mobile ad clicks are accidental or even fraudulent, based on the fact that people “view” the ad two seconds or less. The result, of course, is not only that advertisers get charged even though consumers had no interest in the ad, but that they obviously aren’t going to end up buying the product or service.

This may be one reason advertisers pay much less per impression for mobile ads. And that’s a problem that has investors concerned about every company from Google and Facebook to a raft of mobile and app startups, as more and more online activity moves from stationary computers to smartphones and tablets.

Google found most of the accidental clicks on app image ads happened at the outer edges of the ad, no doubt because people were trying to scroll up or click on adjacent content. So now, Google has added a prompt to “Visit site” whenever people click on the outskirts of the ad. It’s an extra click, but it also ensures that’s really what the person wanted to do. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

Google’s Android Crushes Apple’s iOS In Smartphone Shipments–But Does It Matter?

Source: IDC

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Just four years after its debut, Google’s Android mobile operating software now claims 75% of mobile units shipped, according to a new report from market researcher IDC.

In the third quarter, according to IDC, some 136 million Android handsets shipped, almost double the 71 million shipped in last year’s third quarter. Devices using Apple’s iOS grew by a far lower 57%, to 26.9 million handsets, for a surprisingly low 15% market share. Don’t even ask about Blackberry or Windows Mobile. It’s a two-horse race for now.

Some folks wonder if this trend is heading toward a rerun of the Windows PC vs. the Mac. Maybe, and it’s got to be something that worries Apple CEO Tim Cook, who hardly wants to be the guy who let the mobile revolution get away.

But in the short to medium-term, it’s doubtful this is a killer for Apple. Why?

For one, Apple’s share was probably especially low in the last quarter because the eagerly awaited iPhone 5 didn’t ship until September, very late in the quarter. Add in new iPad models just introduced, in a holiday quarter when Apple devices are probably still the gift people would prefer to give over Android gadgets, and it’s hard to imagine that Apple won’t see some rebound in the fourth quarter. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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