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Rumor has it that Facebook is trying to sidestep Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market with a neat technical trick: a Web-based platform for apps.

Facebook has yet to confirm the existence of the effort, allegedly code-named “Project Spartan.” But if the rumor is true, the effort could threaten Apple and Google’s dominance in mobile software, and give a boost to Web applications over native apps, by appealing to Facebook’s huge and captive user base and by leveraging the social connections between users.

Facebook already lets developers build apps to run on top of its platform, and they’ve created thousands of games, utilities, and even business apps. But these are designed for the desktop, not the mobile or tablet platforms that are growing rapidly in popularity.

Mobile Web apps built on top of Facebook, and that run entirely in the browser, using widely supported technologies like HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS, would free developers from the need to create several version of their software for different mobile platforms. Developers could also use Facebook Credits, which the company is hoping to expand into a universal micropayment system accessible across the Web. Facebook takes the same cut from Credits that Apple does from its App Store: 30 percent.

“If the rumors are true, it means that Facebook is planning to use Web technologies to create a whole new app ecosystem for iOS-based and other mobile devices,” says Ron Perry, chief technology officer at Worklight, a company that provides tools for building mobile applications.

Facebook could also increase its influence in the mobile market by creating a platform for apps that Apple would never approve, or giving developers more favorable terms than the current 30 percent cut.

All this might make it seem inevitable that Facebook would undertake something like Project Spartan. But to succeed at creating an alternate Web-only app ecosystem and payment platform that spans many devices, it will need to overcome a number of challenges.

For one thing, Apple is now in the position that Microsoft was in 20 years ago: it controls the software on its devices and has little incentive to make the environment more hospitable to competing models of application delivery. Indeed, in March, some developers accused Apple of crippling native apps that use Web content on the iPhone and iPad by saddling them with a JavaScript engine only half as fast as the Nitro engine that runs in mobile Safari, the default browser on Apple’s mobile devices. It’s debatable whether or not this bug was intentional.

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Credit: Technology Review

Tagged: Communications

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