Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

What’s Really Going on With Facebook’s Mobile Plans? An Explainer for the Rest of Us.

The hullabaloo around Facebook’s upcoming mobile products in the past week was probably bigger than the news itself. But if you clear away the fuss, we now know a bit more about what the largest social network is planning for mobile developers and users.

So here’s a decoder:

Let’s start with some inarguable truths: At the beginning of this year, Facebook publicly committed to an HTML5 mobile strategy — meaning it would prioritize building for mobile Web browsers rather than specific mobile platforms. However, native mobile applications are currently more responsive, easier to promote, and better integrated with phones than Web versions. Facebook’s current native mobile apps are incredibly popular, but they’re kinda sucky, as their development has lagged while the company focused elsewhere.

What’s new: Facebook is working on an HTML5 version of its app platform, and working with outside developers to get it ready for launch. TechCrunch reported this effort is code-named Project Spartan. And the company is finally close to releasing an iPad app, as reported by the New York Times.

Reality check: The HTML5 stuff isn’t really new, from a strategy perspective. When Facebook CTO Bret Taylor announced the HTML5 direction in January, he specifically said it was about reducing problems with building apps on fragmented mobile platforms for Facebook, as well as for developers who use the Facebook platform.

When I interviewed Facebook head of mobile Erick Tseng in March about the social network’s updated HTML5 mobile Web site, I asked him specifically about what support the site would include for app developers. His reply at the time: “Right now we’re focusing on making our mobile site better, and we continue to offer mobile developers tools through our SDKs for iOS, Android and Blackberry.” Meaning: Yes, this is in the plans, but it’s not ready yet.

I say that with confidence because Facebook is already working publicly to help social-game makers move toward HTML5 instead of Flash (see illustration at left of how HTML5 might bridge game development disciplines). Facebook would quite obviously prefer that a Facebook game like Zynga’s CityVille not have to shift gears completely to develop an iOS app. Last week CityVille Hometown started rolling out for iPad and iPhone, more than six months after the Facebook version was released.

Does this mean Facebook is at war with Apple? Yes, but not in any unexpected way. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently posited that there’s a “Gang of Four” on the Internet today, with Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon building competing platforms.

Every one of the so-called gang is straddling the gap between native mobile apps and Web apps. Google, maker of Android, has declared its allegiance to HTML5. And remember Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash“? He loves HTML5, too.

The reality, though, is developers only have so much time and resources to divide between building apps for Facebook and building native apps specific for iOS or others. You can’t build endless platforms on top of platforms. There are only so many 30 percent cuts (which seems to be the going price) each platform can extract from any purchase made. And if in-app payments are going to work, they need to become less complicated, not more.

Does this mean Facebook is at war with TechCrunch? Um, I guess so? TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, who first wrote about Project Spartan, is pissed that Facebook is trying to downplay the story. Personally, I think both of them are trying to push too hard on their own interpretation of whether this is a big or little deal.

So what about the iPad app? That’s another wrinkle. Facebook had of course long considered offering a native iPad app. But for various reasons internal and external — including a disintegrated alliance with Apple and this whole commitment to HTML5 — it didn’t. Now, as the New York Times reported, the iPad app is much closer to launch.

Isn’t that inconsistent with the whole HTML5 thing? The reality is, Facebook is not yet all about HTML5. Half of Facebook’s 250 million mobile users access the service through the browser. But not all phones even have browsers. Earlier this year, Facebook made a mobile app for feature phones with a partner called Snaptu, which it later bought, and has arranged free mobile-data promotions with carriers around the world.

But! Some of Facebook’s native mobile app experience is already HTML5 based. For instance, you can see in the screenshot at left that the Facebook iPhone app is showing the news feed in HTML5, because its offline error message is a clickable HTML element. Expect development of Facebook’s mobile apps and native apps to converge wherever possible.

What about the mythical “Facebook phone?” Facebook has ever-tighter relationships with phone makers, leading to Facebook-optimized phones like the new Android devices from INQ. Beyond native or Web apps, integrating with a phone’s operating system could be incredibly powerful, and Twitter’s recent tie-up with Apple may nudge Facebook further in that direction.

What’s next? Additional leakage notwithstanding, we should hear a lot more about this stuff at Facebook’s annual f8 developer conference, which will be announced as soon as all these platform products are close to ready, sources at the company said.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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