Facebook at Work coming today, creates in-house social networks

About six months ago, we reported that Facebook was working on a new product aimed squarely at the enterprise market under the working title, “FB@Work.” Now that product is officially coming to light: today the company is launching new iOS and Android apps called “Facebook At Work,” along with a version of Facebook at Work accessible via its main website, which will let businesses create their own social networks amongst their employees that are built to look and act like Facebook itself.

(Facebook At Work is now available for download on iOS, and we’ll update with a links to the Andrid version once it’s live, though both are usable via a limited pilot to start with.

Employers can create separate log-ins for employees to use with their Work accounts, or users can link these up with their other profiles to access everything in one place.

The product puts Facebook head-to-head with the likes of Microsoft’s Yammer, Slack, Convo, Socialcast, and a huge number of others who are trying to tackle the “enterprise social network” space. Even LinkedIn conveniently let drop last night that it too was looking at building a product for coworkers to communicate and share content (but not chat, as a LinkedIn spokesperson tells me). Not all of these have been a hit: Lars Rasmussen, the engineering director at Facebook who is heading up the project, had in his past once headed up one of the failed efforts at an enterprise social network, Google Wave.

Facebook is positioning today’s debut as a bold first step. “We’re putting the app into the app stores so that we can begin testing the product,” Rasmussen said in an interview.

In fact, Facebook has already been running tests of the service with “a very small set” of external businesses around the world, Rasmussen says; this is the next step in that process. The aim initially will be companies with 100 or more employees. (In fact, the existing Facebook Groups product is already used by smaller organisations.)

Because of the early nature of the product, there are a lot of questions in the air. The company has yet to work out, for example, how it might price the app, whether it will monetise the service through ads, or how third-party apps will work. For now, Facebook Platform has been disabled on the Work product, meaning no ads or apps.

That may not always be the case (“It could be paid,” he says).

This beta state of affairs is in some ways ironic. Rasmussen says that Facebook has effectively been working on Work for the last 10 years, because it is based on what Facebook’s own employees have been using to communicate with each other, pass on news, plan meetings and share documents. That long-time use and Facebook’s familiarity to all of us are part of what makes Facebook confident that it can carve a place for itself in a market that already is very crowded.

“Facebook at Work’s strength is that we’ve spent ten years and incorporated feedback from 1 billion active users,” he says. “All of that is embedded now in the same product but adapted for different use cases.”

And it’s actually used by staff. “When Mark [Zuckerberg, the CEO] makes an announcement he just posts it on Facebook at Work,” Rasmussen says.

In fact, Facebook’s own popularity could be Facebook at Work’s biggest advantage. A lot of efforts in offices to get employees to collaborate more with each other have been stymied because employees don’t want to use the software. It’s yet another new thing to learn and doesn’t feel essential.

A lot of messaging apps (Microsoft’s Yammer being one of the notably early movers) have tried to tap into “consumerization” — or getting enterprise apps to look and feel more like consumer apps — to encourage usage. In that vein, Facebook at Work, built essentially on Facebook itself, will be arguably the closest of all to an authentic “consumer” social experience.

Here’s a run-down of some of the key points about the service, as told to me by Rasmussen:

Pricing. As noted above, no firm details on this yet but consider that most of the other apps offer tiers of pricing. By making this free, Facebook could potentially drive a lot more users to its wider network.