Facebook’s launch of its mobile applications platform has been an exercise in diplomacy. It plays nice with the iOS ecosystem, pointing people to native App Store apps and Apple’s own in-app payments system, while also promoting mobile web apps and the Facebook Credits currency on other devices.
A significant expansion of Facebook’s apps platform, deftly executed. No wonder it was a long time coming: rumours about “Project Spartan” had been circulating for months before the official announcement on October 10th.
“It’s a pretty cool launch for us,” says Facebook’s chief technology officer Bret Taylor.
“It really addresses some of the areas I’ve heard a lot of concerns about from mobile developers, and it plays to our strengths. For startups, it’s very difficult to get their apps discovered. They have a honeymoon period in the app stores where they might be in a top 10 list and get a lot of downloads, but once that honeymoon period is over, discovery is very difficult. By integrating with these social channels in mobile, they can get discovered in really organic ways.”
The mobile platform went live alongside the launch of Facebook’s native iPad app, but for now, the social network isn’t talking about how things have gone. Facebook will hold an event towards the end of next week and release some stats.
Taylor describes the challenges of taking Facebook’s applications platform mobile well, though, highlighting the need to get apps working across various devices and operating systems.
“iPhone is extremely popular, but so are Android phones. Windows Phone has made a lot of inroads, and a lot of people use BlackBerry devices. Developing for mobile is a relatively nuanced and complex thing for a lot of developers, particularly in the context of social applications. If someone invites a friend to play a game with them, they don’t necessarily know what handset they have.”
From that point of view, Facebook’s solution is elegant. People tapping on application alerts in their newsfeed on iPhone and iPad will be directed to a native iOS app if it exists–Words With Friends is the example cited by Taylor–while people on other devices will be pointed to the HTML5 mobile web versions. The social network is clearly encouraging developers towards creating both native and HTML5 versions of their apps.
“350 million people are using our mobile apps every month, and that’s split 50-50 between mobile web and native apps,” says Taylor. “We expect that a lot of the developers that really integrate deeply with these mobile features will have a similar mix… When we talk to developers, they don’t want to pick just one platform and live or die by that. They want to reach their customers however they want to be reached. It’s not really an either/or discussion.”
That extends to mobile versus web as well as mobile web versus native mobile app. Increasingly, apps and services are looking to spread across every platform possible: web, mobile, TV, cars and whatever other devices they can run on.
Taylor talks about his own usage of personalised radio service Pandora (NYSE: P) in this context: listening on his computer at work, on his iPhone while driving home and then via his TiVo (NSDQ: TIVO) set-top box at home.
“Those are some of the most compelling services, when you’re talking about mobile as not just something about your phone, but really about the proliferation of devices, and wanting your application to be accessible on all of them,” he says. “We hope that we can be the social discovery engine that drives growth across all of these devices.”
Facebook has just launched three new elements on its developer website focused on HTML5: a Resource Centre to help people build, test and deploy their apps; an HTML5-focused blog; and a developer group to foster discussion around the area.
One of the key challenges for developers making HTML5 mobile web apps has been making money from them, so Facebook’s decision to make its Facebook Credits virtual currency part of its mobile expansion is a significant one.
Taylor warns that it’s early days, though, saying that Facebook’s team is working “very intensively” on making the payments system as simple as possible on mobile. The social network has made Facebook Credits mandatory for games running on its website, but mobile has required more diplomacy, deferring to Apple in not allowing developers to take payments using the currency from iOS users.
Negotiating with the likes of Apple will be ever more sensitive and important for Facebook’s ambitions going forward–Fortune has a very good feature on how the two companies, along with Google and Amazon, are likely to compete in 2012. How challenging is it to find co-operation and collaboration against this backdrop?
“There is certainly a lot of competition in the mobile platforms space, but we have really effective relationships with a lot of those mobile platform owners,” says Taylor. “It’s complementary. We worked a lot with Apple on this release to improve discovery for iOS applications, and we’re actively working to get this working really effectively on Android too.”
Rumours of a “Facebook Phone” or fully-fledged smartphone OS have remained just that: rumours. That means Facebook is still able to present itself as “not a mobile platform ourselves, but a social discovery and engagement platform” in Taylor’s words.
For now, at least, its promotion of HTML5 and the mobile web as a viable space for applications is aligned with the improvement in the browser capabilities on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. “That’s the great benefit of all this competition: everyone’s products are getting really good,” says Taylor.
“There is so much innovation in the browser space both on mobile and desktop. HTML5 and the other technologies it represents really exist now because of that competition. Apple, Microsoft, Google and a whole bunch of other companies are investing so much in the browser, and it’s so good for the web. Most of our developers are hoping the mobile web becomes a viable platform for their applications.”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.