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Rediscovering Parse’s Mission In A Mobile And Facebook World

4 May 2014 Ken Yeung No Comment

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More than a year ago, Facebook made a purportedly $85 million acquisition offer to Parse. When the deal went through, some wondered what the social networking company would want with a service that specializes as a mobile backend-as-a-service (mBaaS). In fact, Parse’s competitors sought to take advantage of the confusion by offering a data export feature.

In a blog post, Parse co-founder and CEO Ilya Sukhar remarked:

Combining forces with a partner like Facebook makes a lot of sense. In a short amount of time, we’ve built up a core technology and a great community of developers. Bringing that to Facebook allows us to work with their incredible talent and resources to build the ideal platform for developers.

And true to its word, Facebook has so far left Parse alone to run as a separate company and when asked about integration plans, Sukhar remained firm saying that it was “business as usual”. Over the past 12 months, the platform has grown tremendously. It’s now powering more than 260,000 applications (an increase of 250 percent) while also seeing its user acquisition skyrocket — 140,000 new developers signed up just this year. Did the acquisition benefit Parse by giving it more notoriety? Or was it because of the decrease in options — one of its competitors, StackMob, was acquired by PayPal in December and ultimately shuttered.

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At the time, TechCrunch stated that the acquisition was made in order to help Facebook in its push to become “more relevant than ever to mobile developers.”The social network has certainly become the social layer with applications, but there needed to be something to help take it to the next level. Until Parse joined the Facebook family, the Menlo Park-based company hadn’t quite cracked through to help mobile apps.

During his f8 keynote, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that his company’s goal was to become the cross-platform platform, offering tools for developers to help them grow, build, and monetize everywhere. Facebook has been successful in reaching 1.2 billion users, so by tapping into the developer ecosystem, it hopes to expand than to 5 billion. Zuckerberg recognized that Facebook couldn’t offer the needed support that developers required — the company had to be cognizant and have a hand throughout the entire process.

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Facebook everywhere

One notable thing about this year’s f8 is the transition away from talking about what goes on with the Social Graph to being about three themes: building stability for developers, putting people first, and creating a bridge between mobile platforms. With respect to the last point, Zuckerberg believes that Facebook is in a unique position since it’s one of the few products available today that can offer that capability: “No one has an incentive to bridge the gape between Apple, Google, and other platforms,” he said on stage.

Facebook should know something about the mobile landscape — it clearly has become a “mobile-best” one. For more than a year, it has seen the number of users accessing its service by mobile device continue to grow. In its Q1 FY2014 earnings report, the number of mobile monthly active users (MAUs) was 1.01 billion, an increase of 34 percent. Interestingly enough, that number is approximately 78 percent of the company’s 1.28 million total MAUs.

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And it’s not just Facebook that’s experiencing this trend. The mobile movement has been reported by Twitter, LinkedIn, and other Internet-based services. The only difference here is that Facebook plays an important role in giving developers and users access to more personalized information.

Parse’s mission has been to help give every mobile developer what they need, including analytics, database support, storage, and push notifications. It’s all about removing the unnecessary friction to help build apps on multiple platforms. Typically, apps require some sort of identifier in order for users to add some layer of personalization. Sure, users can create a unique login through the developer’s system, but it would take a long while before it’s able to curate data about them in order to even come up to the level of personalization that a platform like Facebook can offer. Facebook Login has been used more than any of the other popular social login services, including Google+, Yahoo, Twitter, and LinkedIn — both on Web and mobile.

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With its f8 announcements out of the way, it’s clear that one of the next missions for Facebook is to step up in its support for developers. But if people were worried about the social networking company coming in an providing all the resources for developers, they’re mistaken. It could be that Facebook is only interested in providing the social layer on top of any application — after all, one of its beliefs is to help connect people together, and since the introduction of its ill-fated Home Android layer, Zuckerberg has been promoting Facebook’s effort to move beyond technology and to put people first.

The rise of native mobile apps continues

It’s not that shocking to see Facebook put so much more effort and resources behind Parse as new study from app analytics provider Flurry revealed that mobile app usage is increasing. In fact, native app usage on smartphones has become more popular than mobile Web. In 2013, native apps consumed 80 percent of a user’s time. One year later and that amount has increased by 6 percent.

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But what makes this fascinating is that out of the 86 percent of time spent on native apps, the breakdown may hold a key to Facebook’s intentions and Parse’s future. According to Flurry, 32 percent of all time is spent on gaming apps, while Facebook constitutes 17 percent. The rest is broken into social messaging (9.5 percent), utilities (8 percent), entertainment (4 percent), productivity (4 percent), YouTube (4 percent), news and others (3 percent), and Twitter (1.5 percent). There’s probably a good chance that many of the apps in this space are using Parse in one way, shape, or form and each one has a need to allow its users to share content to their friends and family — so why not use the biggest social network on the Internet today?

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While the social layer is clearly beneficial to developers to help increase engagement, we mustn’t mistake Facebook’s involvement as being altruistic. After all, it is a public company and has multiple masters to serve, including advertisers, so as Facebook becomes more integrated into more mobile apps, it’ll be harnessing the necessary data about those users in order to help grow its Audience Network. But in order for this to be realized, Facebook needs to maintain its distance from Parse and let it run unabated and any interference.

To that extent, Parse has certainly flourished and while it’s owned by Facebook, Sukhar took to the f8 stage to deliver a keynote that didn’t directly mention its parent company, but focused on developer needs. Among those announcements include lower prices, improved analytics, and a new offline capabilities.

Reinventing Facebook Home, with the help of Parse

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Facebook Home may have had some promise a year ago, but it has largely been discontinued. Many of its features, like Chat Heads and Cover Screen have been added to the company’s existing apps. But is there a chance that Parse could play a role in the unofficial revival of Home? In June, Facebook’s Director of Developer Relations Doug Purdy, said that one of the key areas of focus is the company’s app services offering. He explained that this is an area where Facebook hoped to help developers build cross-platform experiences so that the focus became all about the people, not the devices — again, Parse could play an integral part of that.

There’s no word of Facebook resurrecting Home, nor should it, but as the social network becomes more intertwined with more apps, a network of apps could be a possibility. Just take a look at App Links, the new offering Facebook unveiled at f8. How this is beneficial to developers, consumers, and advertisers is that it offers a consistent experience in terms of linking. Instead of going from a native app to a webpage, developers can now program their apps to point users directly to other apps. If you happen to be on Facebook’s mobile app and see someone link to something shared on Pinterest, by tapping on that link, traditionally you might go to the Pinterest Web interface. No more…now it will go directly to that link in Pinterest’s native app.

Why does this matter? Parse, with help from Facebook, has made a significant contribution to the mobile app ecosystem, making the entire user experience that much better than bouncing from screen to screen. It has introduced consistency into the space that no longer needs splash pages and cookies to sense whether you’re on a mobile app or not.

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So what’s this thing about resurrecting Home that I was talking about? Imagine that not only are more developers going to use Parse’s technology stack, but also it will help grow the number of apps leveraging Facebook’s Social Graph. That ecosystem could become, in a visual way, the new Home.

We shouldn’t expect Parse to act any differently than it did before the acquisition. Based on what we can see, it has been functioning almost as an independent company and is continuing its mission to help developers build native apps in this mobile climate. In the year since its acquisition, no ill-effects have befallen the company and its integration with Facebook has become seamless and without worry. It has certainly played a big part in helping create a mobile-best company.

Photo credit: Graph of Facebook mobile MAU via Facebook, chart of social login percentages via MarketingLand, graphs of native vs mobile apps via Flurry

Ken Yeung is a tech journalist and an accomplished digital marketer. He's currently a Strategy and Research Content Lead at Orange Silicon Valley. Previously, he was the Bay Area Reporter for The Next Web, the Editor-in-Chief of Bub.blicio.us, and served as a correspondent for Network Solutions' small business blog. He's interested in all things tech, including enterprise IT, connected devices, startups, and mobile products. These words are his own and not of his employer.