Facebook May Mobilize on Web Apps

Developers are abuzz with a rumored project that could provide a new platform for mobile apps.

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.

Apple may ultimately be forced offer better support for applications that reside in the browser. “At the end of the day, for platforms to be successful, they have to give consumers what they want,” says David Koretz, CEO of the Web-application security firm Mykonos Software. He argues that consumer demand will push mobile companies to offer the best Web experience possible.

Another, potentially more significant issue hanging over the future of mobile apps is the fact that HTML is poorly suited to the kind of app that has so far made the most money for both Facebook and Apple: games. Long-time Apple observer John Gruber sees HTML’s limitations as fundamental to the difference between Apple’s App Store and Facebook’s rumored effort.

“Don’t think of what Facebook is reportedly attempting as a would-be rival to the iOS App Store. Think of it as the mobile equivalent of Flash games for Macs and PCs. Obviously, there would be some competitive overlap, but there’s a fundamental difference in scope and quality,” Gruber said in an e-mail.

Another truth that Facebook needs to confront is that previous efforts to create Web-based apps have fizzled. Apple, in fact, maintains a directory of Web apps—a holdover from the days before developers were able to create native apps for the iPhone. But it has little incentive to promote these. OpenAppMkt, another repository of mobile Web apps, has failed to make much of a dent in the App Store or Android Market. Google itself sells Web apps, through the Chrome Web Store, but these are primarily for desktops. A significant barrier each one of these efforts has run into is their lack of an easy-to-use payment system. Apple already has 200 million iTunes accounts, allowing its users a level of impulse purchasing unheard of in the history of commerce.

Whatever challenges Facebook faces, if the most-visited website in the United States does start pushing mobile Web apps, this could be huge for the penetration of applications based on open Web-browser standards. “Facebook’s reach can definitely bring Web apps to the limelight and make this an attractive option for app publishers,” says Worklight’s Perry.

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