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Many recent headlines have been devoted to Facebook’s focus on the HTML5 markup language, and specifically on an internal HTML5-based project at the company dubbed “Project Spartan.” But the amount of buzz seems to be taking Facebook a bit by surprise.
That may be because Facebook’s investment in HTML5 is nothing new — and it’s certainly nothing that the company has been secretive about.
Facebook hasn’t said much about the Project Spartan scoop published by TechCrunch’s MG Siegler Wednesday night, but a spokesperson did get back to me on Thursday afternoon with a basic statement: “We don’t expect developers to choose between HTML5 and native apps. We expect they will choose both, just as we did. We view HTML5 as a technology, not a platform.”
Translation of the PR speak? Facebook says all the chatter is much ado about nothing. Now, it’s never smart to take a company completely at its word, and Facebook could do any number of things in the future. But it makes sense that Project Spartan may not actually be the splashy, aggressively anti-Apple move it’s been made out to be.
The reality is, Facebook CTO Bret Taylor has talked for months of the importance he places on HTML5 development as way to conserve Facebook’s engineering resources. At a conference held by Inside Facebook back in January, Taylor complained that when his engineers update a feature, they have to update seven versions of the site, including Facebook.com, m.facebook.com, touch.facebook.com, the iPhone (s AAPL) app, the Android (s GOOG) app, and the Blackberry (s RIMM) app. He went on:
It’s an incredible challenge, and there’s feature skew between all those different versions of Facebook… you end up picking and choosing platforms, when really your goal is to reach every single person you can reach on whatever device they’re using.
…Over the long term, people in Silicon Valley really view HTML5 as the future platform we will all be building to, and that’s where we’re putting a huge amount of our investment in the next year.
In that light, seeing Facebook’s HTML5 effort as only a strategic move against Apple seems a bit myopic — and even a little elitist. The fact is, when you take a look outside of the young upwardly mobile crowd, you’ll find a lot of people out there who love Facebook but don’t have iPhones or iPads. And given the famously premium price points of Apple’s devices and the growing popularity of other types of smart phones, there will continue to be a lot of people off of the iOS grid for the foreseeable future. It would make sense that Facebook, with 700 million users and growing, would want to be able to address all its mobile users on equal footing.
If Facebook is developing a fully featured web-based mobile platform that can be used across all devices — iPhones, Androids, Blackberries, Huawei IDEOS, whatever — it isn’t really anti-Apple. It’s just pro-Facebook. And really, would you expect a big tech company to act in any other way?