MENLO PARK, CA – On a wind-swept chunk of land where Sun Microsystems experienced both the highest peaks and the lowest depths that the tech industry has to offer, Facebook is quietly working to define itself as an industry force in more than just social networking.
It has only been a few months since Facebook employees began occupying what used to be known as “Sun Quentin,” a self-contained cluster of office buildings on the shore of San Francisco Bay in the shadow of the Dumbarton Bridge, but the company is already starting to think of itself as an industry leader that can shift the debate within the computing revolution of our time: the transition to mobile. It invited reporters last week from several tech-oriented news organizations — Techcrunch, VentureBeat, PandoDaily, and yours truly, among others — down to its new headquarters to discuss the plans Facebook unveiled at Mobile World Congress in February to help advance HTML5 as a mobile development standard.
James Pearce, Facebook’s head of mobile developer relations, thinks that Facebook has the heft and developer relationships to be a unifying force around HTML5 through the Mobile W3C Community Group, introduced two months ago. The linchpin of the so-called “mobile Web,” HTML5 is a collection of technology specifications that has been endlessly debated by the five major Web browser companies — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera — yet implemented piecemeal before the final standard has been agreed upon, leading to all kinds of developer confusion.
“It’s possible that browser vendors don’t know the demand” for mobile Web applications, said Pearce. “This group is kind of like a product-management process in a way.”
The Web is the way
Facebook wants to accelerate the development of a set of common standards and test suites that app developers can use to ensure their apps meet minimum requirements. It also wants to nudge HTML5 standards-makers into deciding on technology for the most crucial features.
HTML5 is extremely promising as a platform that will allow mobile developers to stop worrying about Apple’s App Store approval process and Android’s fragmentation issues, but building a mobile app entirely in HTML5 is a non-starter for many developers because they need to access things like a smartphone’s camera or graphics hardware: areas that HTML5 standards have yet to address.
Still, even Facebook–perhaps as broad an indicator of Internet activity as there is outside of Google search–sees more activity through the mobile Web than it does through iOS and Android combined, Pearce said. He thinks developers just need someone with a little clout to show them the ways of the mobile Web and force browser makers to get their act together on things like camera access.
Facebook’s real intentions are much broader. Apple and Google are notably absent from its group, although Pearce said they were invited to join. Both companies at times have invoked the promise of the mobile Web — Apple in banning Flash from iOS devices, Google in projects such as Chrome OS — but both have significant interests in native application development for iOS and Android.
Facebook, with 850 million users around the world, does not want to be tied down to either platform, especially now that Google is competing directly against it with Google+. Hence the interest in turning HTML5 into a reality: a development platform that no one company truly controls, but that may depend on Facebook’s ecosystem in order to attract users and advertisers en masse. Pearce said HTML5 developers face huge challenges around application discoverability and monetization, areas in which Facebook — with a huge user base and its own payments system — would be all too willing to help.
Widespread rumors have surfaced over the last several years about Facebook’s desire for mobile independence. The company has been said to be working on its own phone, similar to how Amazon used a basic version of Android to build a tablet designed completely around its services. It has also been reportedly interested in building a version of Facebook in HTML5 that is just as functional as native versions of the app for iOS or Android.
Facebook has been quite successful enticing developers to build applications within the desktop version of Facebook, with Zynga’s runaway growth as perhaps the best example of the opportunities it has provided to developers. Now it’s trying to see if it can extend that influence to mobile, a space currently dominated by the big kids on the Silicon Valley block; Apple and Google.
“The industry was ready for this to happen, and we think of ourselves as good industry citizens,” Pearce said Thursday. He is, of course, referring to “the industry” in terms of the legions of mobile developers, as compared to the established smartphone players. Those developers might be frustrated by the experience provided by Apple and Google, but they have no other alternative to reach mobile users, given the lack of sophistication around the HTML5 standard and the degree to which we’ve all become obsessed with mobile apps since the App Store made its debut in 2008.
In order for its vision to happen, however, Facebook will have to lure a new collection of mobile-oriented companies — several of whom have been in business longer than CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been legally able to drive–into its orbit, away from Apple and Google. Prominent carriers such as AT&T and Verizon are on board as well as handset makers like Samsung and Nokia, but collaborative industry groups come and go in the technology world without ever having done much to change the conversation.
As the company’s already-legendary IPO approaches, Facebook is increasingly interested in defining its mobile strategy on its own terms, courting the tech media (“We’re trying something new,” read the invitation) in order to present its own vision for the future of mobile computing.
Facebook employees are all too aware of the fate that befell Sun, a pioneering company eventually done in by its inability to change along with a changing industry. With its social-media domination seemingly well in hand, Facebook is looking ahead to its next challenge: ensuring it can remain a destination for consumers and developers without having to toe Apple or Google’s line.