Prior to the introduction of the iPhone 4S and Siri voice-powered concierge, rumors had swirled around Facebook’s presence at last week’s Apple event, with the idea that an appearance would reveal more of Facebook’s own mobile plans. Some expected a long-awaited Facebook iPad app. Others were looking for a forceful counterthrust, code-named Project Spartan. There was even a report of a deep integration partnership. It turned out that all the rumors were premature, and Facebook didn’t say anything new. And rather than focus on the Facebook-Apple relationship exclusively, it’s more advantageous to examine Facebook’s overall mobile plans: To align more closely with its core strategic objectives and reduce its need to make trade-offs among them, I expect that Facebook will start showing an HTML5-driven mobile strategy within the next 6 to 12 months.
Facebook seeks several strategic objectives:
- Ubiquitous access that encourages heavy, high-frequency usage. The more that Facebook members use Facebook, the more dependent on it they become.
- A common Facebook experience across devices. Users expect to be able to do on a phone or tablet whatever they do on the web. So do developers. A game developer wants to make its own decisions about stripping features from a mobile version, not to be forced into decisions by platform limitations. It also desires cross-platform playability.
- Distributed technologies that reinforce its platform, even off-site. Distributing Likes, sign-on and comments helps lock in users (and third-party developers) to its core services. More importantly, it gives Facebook off-site user data to fuel its interest graph for ad targeting.
Facebook currently makes compromises and trade-offs in supporting these objectives. For example, it offers boiled-down, SMS-powered services for low-end feature phones, and you can’t play games on the current Facebook iPhone app. Both of those boost ubiquitous access at the expense of common technologies and experiences. But as Facebook goes forward, the latest powerful mobile operating systems and 4G mobile access speeds mean that it won’t need to compromise as much. Facebook tech execs are on the record saying website-based HTML5 is the future.
Going with HTML5
A Facebook iOS app could be optimized for a gesture-based UI, but the resulting experience might vary too much from the way Facebook.com works. That’s especially true if new site features like the Ticker and updated news feed were built after an iPad prototype was finished.
In contrast to an iOS app, according to rumors, the so-far mythical Project Spartan would deliver an HTML5-based framework that would give Facebook commonality across devices and operating systems. And it just so happens that such a thing wouldn’t have to play by Apple App Store rules. It could link to paid services outside Apple, and Facebook could continue to take its 30 percent cut from developers using its Credits system without tithing to Apple.
The art of compromise
The way Microsoft integrates Facebook services into Windows Phone is really quite clever and useful. It disintegrates the Facebook user experience into some component parts (updates, other communications, directory info, etc.), organized around people. It blends in Facebook elements with other sources like Twitter, email and voice messages. While this approach supports Facebook objectives No. 1 and No. 3, it violently breaks No. 2, and Facebook can’t be completely happy about that.
If Microsoft could do this, think how Apple integration might work. With its brilliance in UI, Apple would probably diffuse the Facebook user experience even more. Add that to onerous terms from the App Store and you can see why Facebook probably won’t cooperate with Apple.
But to lock in iPhone users and gain Apple support for distributed platform services, Facebook might give in to Apple to combat its real rival, Google. If Android momentum leads to rapid adoption and deployment of Google identity as well as social media services like Google+, +1s and sign-on, look for Facebook to beat a path back to Cupertino.