Facebook is planning on launching an HTML5-based web app platform codenamed Project Spartan, according to TechCrunch (s aol), in order to take on Apple (s aapl) 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 (s adbe), 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 (s goog), 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.