Mike Isaac

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Finally, Facebook Speeds Up Its iOS App

If you’re one of the millions of people using Facebook’s main iOS application, you already know it’s horrendously slow.

Well, you’ll be glad to know that on Thursday afternoon, Facebook will launch a major update to the app for the iPhone and iPad, drastically improving speed and overall performance.

Thank heavens.

We knew this was coming, and it is much needed. Frankly, the app’s performance up to now has been embarrassing, considering Facebook is the most installed iOS application in the entire world. Slogging through the feed was sluggish. Photos took forever to load. Even the basic action of opening the app itself took longer than other apps.

Consumers no longer regard performance as a bonus feature when considering an app — performance is a necessity. Especially on iDevices like the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod Touch, pieces of hardware synonymous with speed, refined user interfaces and a fine-tuned operating system that handles apps with ease.

Facebook acknowledges as much. “People have different expectations when it comes to using Facebook for iOS,” Mick Johnson, Facebook iOS mobile product manager, told me in an interview this morning. “They expect a level of performance and speed that just wasn’t there.”

Johnson says that the largest pain points — scrolling through the feed, photos and loading the app — will all be much faster, by a factor of two. Also, Facebook mobile developers working on the three separate iOS apps — Facebook, Camera and Messenger — are all now sharing a code base with each other, so Messenger and Camera are actually running inside of the proper Facebook app, bringing many of those features to Facebook for iOS. (As a bonus, a shared code base means faster development cycles, so we’ll probably see improvements sooner.)

This is all well and good. But why on earth did this take so long? For a company that claims to be “mobile first,” you’d think that Facebook would have gotten its apps up to speed much sooner. Not to mention the added pressure of Facebook needing to shift ad dollars away from the desktop as the mobile application continues to rise in popularity. Perhaps a speedier application could help to serve up Facebook’s newly released mobile ad products — like “Sponsored Stories” and “Offers” — in a more effective way.

Johnson raises a fair point. “Up until now, we’ve focused on getting to scale,” he said. “We have 500 million users accessing it monthly across 7,000 different types of mobile devices.” In order to reach that wide swath of people, Facebook has focused on HTML5, a programming language which, in a nutshell, made it easier to push the same Facebook experience out to everyone across the world at once. As a Facebook spokesman pointed out to me, iOS devices are just one of thousands of different phones accessing Facebook — to focus on one while neglecting the others would have been problematic. Especially when you consider just how important international growth is to Facebook, where the vast majority of people aren’t using smartphones.

So basically, Facebook had to go back and rewrite the whole thing from scratch. While the current Facebook app is predominantly HTML5-based, Johnson and his team gutted it and rebuilt it using the Objective-C programming language, which makes better use of the iPhone hardware and focuses on the advantages of using a native application, rather than rendering Facebook items in the app using Web data. (For more nerdy deets on this, look at Facebook’s engineering blog.)

This doesn’t mean that Facebook is abandoning HTML5, Johnson says. “The mobile web is still very important to us, as are all of our interfaces,” he said. Problem is, HTML5 is a technology that, while promising in the long run, isn’t able to deliver the type of speed and performance we expect right now. It’s a long bet, and something that Facebook aims to continue developing.

No word on an Android update, though Johnson hinted to me that it’s probably already in the works.

Look for the new app to hit Apple’s App Store later on this afternoon.


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