If the IPO fairy suddenly appeared at the foot of my bed and promised to grant me control of any company in technology, I think I would pick Facebook.
Sure, I know Facebook is bleeding cash and could easily slip into loser mode like MySpace did. But with the right moves, Facebook could become the most important company on the Internet -- more important even than you-know-whoogle.
How? By becoming indispensible to everybody as the ultimate mobile social networking service. Here's what Facebook should do:
1. Add one-button friending
Facebook's iPhone app, as well as other Facebook cell-phone apps, should feature a button that uses Bluetooth to scan the room for other people who have also activated their Facebook buttons. Once you and the other person have tapped your respective buttons, you'll now be "Friends" on Facebook.
This single feature would replace business cards for business people, and the standard processes for casual connections among younger people.
It would leverage the user base to practically "force" non-users to sign up. Imagine a business meeting or a nightclub where everyone is connecting, and you're sitting there like a schmuck muttering stuff like, "er, I don't really use Facebook."
2. Emphasize use of Facebook as an address book
Once everyone got into the habit of connecting with their cell phones, all data on friends, family and colleagues would be in Facebook, not Outlook, Gmail or dedicated contact software.
Facebook should then enable users to add any and all contacts, or to import them from other applications. That would make Facebook the preferred contact application.
The new iPhone app that shipped last month makes it super easy to tap the "Friends" icon, and get to what is essentially an address book. (The address book is one tab called "Info" and the other two tabs are: "Wall" and "Photos.")
If I ran Facebook, I'd tell the UI team to default to Info, and put the phone number and e-mail address at the top. That would mean using the Facebook address book would be as easy as any other address book, with two benefits. First, the contact data is maintained by the owner of that data, not you, so it's always up to date. Second, it comes with "Wall" data, so you can easily see what people are up to before you call or e-mail.
3. Improve messaging
Everybody has a love-hate relationship with e-mail. We love it because it's so useful and universal. But we hate it because of spam.
Facebook is in a position to offer a superior alternative to e-mail, because people can only send messages to you if you've pre-approved them (by friending them).
Unfortunately, Facebook's "Inbox" feature is slow and cumbersome to use. It should work more like e-mail and less like some kind of dumb message board. It should also let you send messages outbound over e-mail, and people should be able to send you messages from the outside only if they're replying to your Facebook-originating message.
In other words, it would work exactly like e-mail, but people or companies that are not on your Facebook friends list would not be able to initiate messages to you. Good-bye spam! Hello forcing everyone to use Facebook!
4. Leverage location data
Nokia announced last week that some of its smartphones will be able to use a Nokia-developed application to push location data to Facebook as part of a status update.
First of all, this is just scratching the surface of how location data can enhance Facebook. Second, Facebook should be building this, not partners.
Facebook should be able to tell you when friends are nearby. This should be user controllable, so you can choose to be alerted to all friends, just some friends or no friends. The idea is that when you get within, say, a half-mile of someone you care about, your phone bleeps, and it says, "Joe Schmo is just around the corner!" Facebook should then offer options to chat, call, meet up or ignore.
5. Fix the internal spam problem
Give users the ability to auto-reject cause, group and other invitations. It's just so much spam to most of us, and makes us long for an alternative to Facebook.
By letting people who don't want to get this junk to turn it off, Facebook would suddenly become wonderful to use, rather than annoying.
Sure, there are a gazillion tweaks Facebook could make to improve the service for users. But to become massively powerful, Facebook should own the future of mobile social networking, improve messaging and get rid of the junk that makes Facebook annoying.
That's where the money is, too, by the way. By doing the five items on my list, Facebook could replace Linked-in, Plaxo, DubMeNow, Gmail, and a host of other services. They could scan messages like Google does and present contextual ads. They could provide contextual ads based on location, even offering a restaurant or bar as a suggestion for where to meet nearby friends. And by implementing my plan, they would gain millions of new users, further boosting their power to attract big ad dollars.
Unfortunately, I don't think Facebook will aggressively pursue any of this. Based on past performance, I think Facebook will squander the opportunity of the decade. They'll muddle along as a popular social network, and let Google, Microsoft and others make off with the future of mobile social networking.
Too bad. Facebook coulda been a contender.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.
This story, "4 Changes Facebook Needs to Live" was originally published by Computerworld.