28 Comments

Summary:

Facebook is reportedly planning on launching an HTML5-based web app platform codenamed Project Spartan in order to take on Apple in the mobile app market. It’s the obvious play for a company that lives on the web, but here’s why it won’t work for mobile users.

facebook-app-store-feature

Facebook is planning on launching an HTML5-based web app platform codenamed Project Spartan, according to TechCrunch , in order to take on Apple in the mobile app market. The project will be entirely web-based, which allows Facebook to avoid handing over any control to Apple. Facebook may be great at social, and social gaming, but if it really is planning this, it doesn’t yet have a good grasp on what mobile users are looking for.

Apple’s App Store is a huge success, and it’s ironic that the introduction of native apps came largely at the behest of iPhone owners, who were dissatisfied with the company’s initial policy of only allowing third-party software on the platform via web apps. Web technology has made great strides since then, and HTML5 makes it possible to recreate rich-media effects without resorting to Flash, which is too resource-hungry for most current-gen mobile devices, and is barred from iOS devices. But despite advances, web apps have yet to prove themselves as a viable alternative to local native software. The Chrome Web Store, for example, powered by Google, hasn’t shown any signs of real success, and in fact, some have suggested it’s quite the opposite, including developers actually selling in the store.

Facebook does bring a built-in audience of 700 million users to the table, so it has that going for it. And a decent chunk of those users partake in social gaming from developers like Zynga, the makers of FarmVille, on Facebook’s desktop web platform. But Farmville, and many other social games that use in-game currency to make most of their money, have already found a profitable route to mobile thanks to Apple’s App Store. A Facebook offering might immediately appeal to some of these developers (the social network allegedly has 80 involved in the initial Project Spartan launch), but to prove a viable alternative in the long run, Facebook will have to either offer a better value proposition to devs (by giving them a bigger cut) or show that developers can reach more users than they do with native offerings.

For a store that resides entirely on the web, that’s a tall order, because it means convincing mobile users to shift their idea of what constitutes mobile software once again. It’s hard to understate how different it is to ask mobile users to pay for an application, versus asking them to pay for access to what basically amounts to a website. Facebook web apps will apparently carry a “Facebook wrapper” with basic Facebook functions and access to Credits, Facebook’s virtual currency, but it won’t change the fact that it’s a web page you’re looking at. To mobile users who have embraced the app store model, this will likely feel too much like backsliding.

I’m not at all of the opinion that mobile apps will ever replace the web, but I think we’ve also reached a point where web apps will never replace native ones. And Facebook, which still doesn’t treat the iPad as a mobile device, despite the fact that it has much more in common with the iPhone than with any PC, isn’t going to change that.

Apple may not understand the social web, as undertakings like Ping demonstrate, but it did seem to acknowledge that by partnering with a company that does when it introduced Twitter integration in iOS 5. Facebook, on the other hand, seems to have a blind side when it comes to monetizing mobile users, and Project Spartan is just another sign that it isn’t going to “get it” any time soon.

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  1. The Facebook mobile app m.facebook.com already surpasses the buggy Facebook app. Same with the YouTube web app as well as many other examples.

    It might help this article to list some examples for support, as this is purely an over-opinionated piece.

    1. Agreed that this article reads as thin on facts and too heavy on opinion.

      Given how important Facebook is, how much complaining one hears about their APIs and maintaining different app versions for iOS and a fragmented Android, and how important it is to avoid stacked tiers of revenue sharing, a stable mobile web app platform by Facebook could make a lot of sense.

      On the other hand, Facebook is probably the only company people trust less than Apple….

  2. There is still no iPad app. I think that says it all.

  3. You realize the “thin app wrapper around a web site” model is the one used by the App Store, don’t you?

    I guess that means Apple doesn’t “get it”?

    1. An App may be a wrapper, but let’s not call it thin. Apple (and Google) offer up a bevy of cool tools to enhance the user experience and deliver more functionality. Seamless Twitter access (pervasive throughout whole OS and available to Apps). iCloud content. Just to name some notables from WWDC. Darrel’s post is right on – Web/HTML and Apps aren’t going to replace each other anytime soon. Apps are successful. And sure, there’s a bit of a race between native HTML and OS-specific Apps on enabling capabilities, but watching WWDC and Google I/O in the past month, I’m not worried that Apps are suddenly going to lose that race any time soon!

  4. My guess is Facebook taking a $200 million invesment from Microsoft is driving the HTML5 and little native iOS decision.

  5. Brian Rinaldi Thursday, June 16, 2011

    “Flash, which is too resource hungry for most current-gen mobile devices”

    I am confused. Isn’t Flash it running on most current gen mobile devices? It runs great on my Nexus 1 (which isn’t a powerhouse anymore), on my Galaxy Tab 7″, on my wife’s G2, on my Xoom.

    Obviously, if they want to target specifically iOS browser-based apps, then Flash is out of the question – and while your readers are probably well aware, there’s certainly no issue with you restating such. However, offhand and entirely false statements like the one above are troubling since I am certain you, as a writer for a top technology blog, are informed enough to know it isn’t true.

    Brian Rinaldi
    Web Community Manager, Flash Platform
    Adobe

    1. Maybe the US has more flash optimized sites. Out here in Asia, Flash on mobile comes out very choppy. I don’t want to accuse anyone of lying when they say that Flash on mobile works well. I think the biggest problem is that there is such a difference in opinion and experiences. Who am I supposed to trust?

      1. Agree with you that many sites in Asia make heavy use of very many SWF elements, and that many of these websites have not yet checked what they look like on smartphones… heck, I’ve seen lots of sites that blink to high heaven on a powerful laptop!

        But that doesn’t imply that characterizing the underlying technology as “resource hungry” is logical… would be equivalent to saying “browsers will never work, because there are so many ugly or verbose pages out there”.

        Sorry to go off-topic from your Facebook/Apple observations… I saw a tweet from Brian, then watched as the negative assessment of Flash got downgraded to the performance of certain Asia sites. For comparable tasks, Flash is outperforming HTML on mobile (GuiMark3 this week, eg).

        jd/adobe

      2. @jd

        If you think that it’s a downgrade because I’m talking about Asian sites, then I think you may have missed my point. I can only talk about my personal experience and those my friends have. I don’t live in the US so I can’t comment on the experience there. As I stated, what I think is the crux of the problem is the “uncertainty” of the performance, not the technological underpinnings.

    2. Your CEO seemed quite embarassed when he stated Flash works on mobile devices and uncle Mossberg said “not true”…

      http://allthingsd.com/video/?video_id=7425A8A1-9A90-4024-A44C-2E25A6ED03ED

      Gets funny at 1’40”.

      Stefano

  6. Though I do not use Facebook, I hope their effort is innovative and successful as competition is good for consumers. But I find it hard to believe that the people that created Facebook have the ability to create compelling software to rival Apple iOS offerings. Sorry.

    At the end of the day, I am not sure how Apple really loses in all of this though. Even if some people peel off and use the Facebook gaming platform or whatever this thing is Facebook is doing, people are still using it with their iPhone and iPad, so Apple is still making money on selling their phones and other related service. All this does is just create one more way to make use of your IOS device.

  7. Your right DougS. That’s why Facebook has recently acquired Sofa.

  8. I think it’s less about Facebook not getting mobile apps and more that mobile apps go against their business model. Facebook is in the business of grabbing as much user data as possible and apps limit their ability to do so. Compound that with the fact that they can’t iterate as quickly with apps and don’t hold the ultimate control. Besides, the Facebook Android and iPhone apps are great and popular, so it’s hard for me to believe that Facebook doesn’t recognize that.

  9. There are problems with Web-based apps that most people don’t think about until they are actually using them.

    Most people would rather use native applications designed specifically for their devices, than to rely on Web applications that are controlled and run by for-profit companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) on their servers. And you are also dependent on the speed and consistency of your Internet connection, as well as the speed and availability of the hosting servers.

    Also, a Web browser is not the best medium for these applications, since Web apps have to be one-size-fits-all applications written in the limitations of HTML.

    Using Web apps also means that if you are ever without Internet service, you have no access to the hosted applications and your precious files stored on their servers. Not a good position to be in.

    Apple’s iCloud is very different than existing “cloud” services. The concept is that iCloud is a transparent “machine” that makes sure that all of your digital data is automatically in sync, no matter which devices you are using. And if you are not connected to the Internet, you can still use your native applications and have access to all of your files.

    This change means that you and your other devices are no longer tied to your computer, or to Web apps, to provide your digital data.Once iCloud is available, and people start using it, it will become clearer to those who don’t fully understand this concept yet just how greatly it will make our “digital lives” easier and worry-free.

  10. “I’m not at all of the opinion that mobile apps will ever replace the web, but I think we’ve also reached a point where web apps will never replace native ones.”

    Reading this made me think of all the people who scoffed at the idea that we would abandon desktop software installs for web-hosted applications.

  11. Most of these arguments (both the author’s and comments) have no basis in fact. The average consumer does not want a “native” app.

    It’s clear from what’s happened over past 4 years since the iPhone was released that people want to download apps onto their mobile devices via a storefront (like the App Store) that puts the app icon on their home screen. They don’t want to use their web browser to access apps. They don’t want to have to type in their credit card number every time they want to pay for an app.

    “Web apps” can do almost everything a “native” app can do (at least on iOS). They can “install” themselves such that there is an icon on the homescreen that’s indistinguishable from a “native” app. They can store data locally and work offline. They can even access advanced features like location services and the accelerometer. In fact, many “native” apps in the App Store are just “web pages” wrapped in a native application. As someone pointed out, that’s exactly what the App Store itself is. If the developer does his or her job right, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you’re using a “native” or “web” app.

    What web apps can’t do is match the finding and buying experience that the App Store provides. That’s why web apps never caught on — there’s no (good) central place to find and install web apps, no simple way for developers to charge for their software, and no one-tap Install process.

    If Facebook can solve those problems (the last one’s going to be hard, at least on iOS), I say great!

  12. Mica Cardillo Thursday, June 16, 2011

    I disagree almost entirely with the assements made in this post. Apple’s ecosystem, as it currently exists, is not producing enough revenue to compensate for the investments being made. Of the 80,000 developers who have published on the App Store so far, I’ll bet that less than 1% will ever make enough money to justify making another iOS app. I’m seeing a lot of high quality apps now debuting at less than 1k per month. The reality is that most of the money is being made at the top of the charts, and legacy apps and existing large mobile publishers are creating significant barriers to entry.

    Sure, native apps are more robust and can offer more functionality, and there is a sizable chunk of the market that has come to expect that. And sure, iOS may offer a more desirable tool kit and developer experience. But if you’re a developer that is unlikely to recover your investment, you’re going to look elsewhere. Developing an html5 app with only 80% of the functionality of a native app might start to look like a good opportunity. I’m a marketer, and I’m 99% sure that it will end up being more cost effective to reach and sell to niche consumer when we don’t have to worry about whether the customer has an iPad or not. By the way, the idea of consumers not wanting to pay for an html5 app is a mute point. Most apps will be free, with the monitization coming via in-app purchases. That’s primarily how the top grossing apps are making money now days, as it is the only way Apple allows you to have a relationship with your customer.

    With an avid userbase that already makes in-app purchases, I think Facebook and Project Spartan will ultimately be a welcomed by a lot of developers. And I look forward to marketing and community-building for them.

    1. Mica. I’m not sure how you are coming to your assumptions. Every good Android and iOS app developer I know is backed up with work. Are there a lot of hobbyists who aren’t making money? Yes. But that happens to any market where there is a low barrier of entry. How many YouTube users are able to make a living off of their YouTube ads? How many bloggers?

      I also think you may have the misconception that it is easier to develop web apps. For most projects, the cost of development is higher because you have to account for more variables. Whats the screen size? What mobile browser? Is it touch screen?

      It’s like when you use HTML in email marketing. You have to account for the differences in how different mail clients will render it.

      I don’t see why both web apps and native apps can’t win. They both have their place. The critical thing is whether or not the customer will prefer this method for your app. Basing your decisions on ideology and not on the customer can take you down the wrong road.

      1. Well said, and informative. Good input and I agree with you that both web apps and native apps have their place. Everyone likes something different. Let the consumer decide.
        lance damon bliss
        7slocal

  13. This is more like Facebook’s version of Chrome…and it is probably more of a threat to Google than it is to Apple. Also, Apple can one up FB by designing its own web/browser based apps and linking them to the their counterpart apps that run on Apple mobile devices. That way Apple can provide functionality and utility via apps that run in the browser and deep content and robust experiences with associated apps that run on its mobile devices whether the user is online or not.

  14. Native mobile apps are a temporary stop-gap measure towards the mobile web- that’s why Facebook doesn’t waste its resources building an app for the crappy iFad(e). Also obviously, Apple doesn’t get the web,
    with its also crappy iCloud, the fail Mobile Me 2

    1. Dude, Tim, you’re tilting at windmills. “iFad” – you really think iPad HISTORICAL sales are some type of freakish blip? Android and Apple Apps – how many gajilions of downloads do you need to see (a.k.a. consumers providing market feedback on what they like) before saying “huh, maybe there’s something to this?”. The Web (and mobile extensions thereof) has succeeded because it is constantly evolving and based on market forces, ultimately practical. Obviously, there is something to the mobile/App model, and to decry success based on technology orthodoxy is… well, anti-Web.

    2. I agree Nick – Apple is clearly being dragged kicking and screaming into the cloud. I love their hardware and OS, but rely on Google for most software.

  15. As wireless broadband becomes more ubiquitous, speeds increase and HTML5 continues to improve, the need for locally installed apps (on any device) will decrease; much like SaaS continues to erode the need for locally installed software. End-user software that has specific OS dependency will eventually fade into oblivion, in my opinion. Apple is only hastening this transition with it’s App pricing practices.

    The walled garden approach that Apple adheres to is good for Apple in the short run, but, I believe, will ultimately prove to have been a flawed philosophy. I personally think Google is much better positioned on the software front (their crappy customer service aside). I love Apple’s hardware and have a lot of respect for their OS – so I am not an Apple hater.

  16. The only thing that matter is this: Will Developers MAKE ANY MONEY on Facebook?

    The one thing clear about apps on iOS devices is that THEY MAKE MONEY. iOS Native Apps MAKE MONEY.

    Web Apps don’t make money. People expect them TO BE FREE. Thus only Android users, who also expect their apps to be free, will want Web Apps.

    If they can’t make money on Facebook Web Apps as opposed to iOS Native Apps, then developers simply won’t go to Facebook.

  17. Great analysis. Completely agree with the psychology of free vs. pay applications with online consumers. Performance and richness of content within HTML5 will be the keys to Facebook’s success.

  18. The current facebook app in the appstore is the mobile site in a wrapper already. Their mobile site still manages to be a lot better than the app though, so maybe this is a good thing.

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