MyPad and the Coming Facebook Wars on the iPad

Why on earth isn’t there an official Facebook app for the iPad? The social networking giant has had an iPhone app ever since the launch of the iTunes App Store in 2008, and the company says that more than 250 million people access Facebook through mobile devices. Its engineers have tried to make the Facebook website touch-friendly, but it still doesn’t work well in Safari, the iPad’s built-in Web browser. So you’d think Facebook would want to do more for the tens of millions of people who now have iPads, from the President to the Pope.

Well, when you put the fact that hackers found a test version of an iPad app embedded inside Facebook’s iPhone app back in July together with the widespread speculation that Facebook will officially launch this app at its f8 developer conference on September 22, it looks like a Facebook iPad app is now a fait accompli. So the real question should probably be “What took so long?”

The only public clues about that came in a November 3, 2010, press conference, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the iPad is “not a mobile platform in the same way that a phone is.” Facebook mobile head Erick Tseng, backpedaling a bit for his boss, explained that the company was waiting to see how the tablet market evolves. “The broader question,” Tseng said, is “how do we scale for a tablet form factor in a way that doesn’t lock us into a specific platform.”

Nick Bilton, head of The New York Times‘ Bits blog, provided extra context in June. He cited unnamed “people briefed on Facebook’s plans” who said the company has actually been laboring on an iPad app in secret for almost a year, and that it has “unique features” and a “slick design” that apparently required lots of development work and testing.

Whatever the reasons, Facebook’s slow and careful approach to the new platform has left a gap in the mobile marketplace big enough for an army of third-party developers to march through. If you browse the iTunes App Store, you can find more than a dozen native iPad apps that tap into your Facebook account and present your friends’ status updates, photos, and so forth using a vaguely Facebook-like interface. They include names like Facely, fPad, FPremium, FriendCaster, Friended, Friendly, iFace, Liike, Pica, and Venus. (One sad but amusing entry is called People Who Deleted Me on Facebook.)

Friendly and Friended are probably the most appealing apps on this list. But almost all of them are doomed.

You can’t blame developers for being opportunistic (or should I say apportunistic?)—that’s what being an entrepreneur is about. But very few of these apps offer anything uniquely useful or sticky. They’re just tablet-sized reworkings of the familiar Facebook elements. As soon as Facebook officially unveils its own iPad app—which, as video bloggers have documented, will likely incorporate the service’s news feeds, photos, chat, messages, events, places, and everything else—there will be little demand for the third-party apps.

There is, however, an exception, and it’s a very interesting one. It’s an eight-month-old app called MyPad, and it’s the creation of a five-man startup called Loytr, which is based at Dogpatch Labs in San Francisco. With more than 17 million downloads under its belt, MyPad is ranked as the top Facebook app for the iPad in the iTunes App Store. Loytr founder and CEO Cole Ratias says the app has a million daily active users, who have the app open for an average of 20 minutes per day. That’s the kind of engagement rate that most mobile developers would kill for. The recently released iPhone version of MyPad is also a top-10 app, and earns more stars from users than the current version of Facebook’s own iPhone app.

Like Twitter’s widely praised iPad app, MyPad is built around a system of sliding, stacking columns. (In fact, it largely replaces the Twitter app, since you can use it to view your Twitter timeline and publish your own tweets. You can’t yet see Twitter mentions, retweets, lists, or profiles, however.) The app’s biggest selling point, from my point of view as a content hound, is that you can easily click on the URLs in tweets or Facebook status updates and read the original articles in a slide-out browser window without leaving the app, just as in Twitter’s application. As you might expect, you can also use MyPad to review your Facebook friend list, messages, groups, and notifications. The photo albums are especially nice—the Loytr engineers added a full-screen slide show feature with Ken Burns animation.

But it wouldn’t be a surprise if Facebook duplicated all of this, except for the Twitter integration, in its own iPad app. It’s MyPad’s other features—both existing and forthcoming—that may make it a viable alternative to Facebook’s own app on the iPad. When I met with Ratias this week and quizzed him about his post-f8 plans, he walked me through some roadmap details that make me optimistic about the startup’s prospects.

“Our goal has never been to be a Facebook client—but it was a great customer acquisition strategy,” Ratias confessed. Now that Loytr has a community spending 20 million minutes per day on its platform, he says, the startup plans to add features that will turn the app into a “social discovery platform” for games, music, and other apps. Basically, the idea is to make MyPad into a place where users can see which digital attractions have caught their friends’ attention, with Facebook functioning merely as the social graph that ties users together.

Already, Loytr has partnered with several mobile game makers, including TinyCo and CrowdMob, to place buttons in the games section of its navigation bar that launch iPad and iPhone games such as Tiny Zoo and Mob Empire. Within a few weeks, Ratias says, the startup will add a feature that allows MyPad users to see which games other MyPad users are playing. (Users will only see data about their Facebook friends—that’s the social graph part.)

Shortly after that, Ratias says, the startup will branch out beyond games, giving MyPad users the ability to share a complete list of the apps installed on their iPads or iPhones. The overall idea is to help users find new apps by letting them see what apps their friends are buying and using. The benefit for Loytr is that every time a MyPad user discovers and buys a paid app this way, it will earn an affiliate commission from Apple. (Ratias says the company’s data shows that MyPad users already spend $1 million a month in the iTunes Store.)

Ratias is a little more reticent when it comes to Loytr’s plans to pull music into the mix. But it’s not hard to imagine how users might share information about the playlists programmed into their iPod apps (Ping done right?), with the resulting music sales generating even more affiliate commissions.

Facebook is certainly one of the channels by which today’s digital games, music, apps, movies, and other content go viral, but it was never designed to lead communities of users directly to this content, Ratias argues. That’s where MyPad will step in, Ratias says. The way things work today, “you have to discover an app, then download it, then you hit a certain point where you want to share it with friends,” he says. “We are flipping that, so that even as you discover an app, it makes sense to share it, and bring a community of your friends with you so that you have a familiar environment.”

The regular MyPad app is free, but about 10 percent of customers opt for the ad-free $0.99 “MyPad+” version, which has been enough to make Loytr profitable, Ratias says. The startup has raised a small seed round from investors such as Coveroo founder Karl Jacob, an early advisor at Facebook; Matt Ocko, a partner at Sevin Rosen and an investor and advisor at Zynga; and Anduin Ventures, a fund established by early employees at Palantir Technologies. Technically, Loytr has outgrown its berth at Dogpatch Labs, which limits teams to four people, and will be on the move soon.

Interestingly, Ratias says he agrees with Zuckerberg that “the iPad is not particularly mobile.” He says Loytr’s traffic statistics show a 25 percent spike in usage on the weekends, his conclusion being that many users don’t have their iPads with them when they’re away from home during the week. Personally, I find that surprising—I don’t go anywhere without my iPad.

But in my mind, the question of the iPad’s mobility was never really the point. The Apple device is an indisputably wonderful platform for many tasks that formerly required a desktop browser. My own suspicion about Facebook’s foot-dragging when it comes to the iPad is that the seven-year-old company is beginning to show the first signs of what you might call platform capture. It was born on the Web, and it thinks of itself as a Web company—which means it’s in some danger of being leapfrogged by younger companies that are more attuned to today’s world of cross-platform apps. Loytr, although it only has five engineers to Facebook’s thousands, could be one of those.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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