Intelligent Machines

Digital Summit: Facebook Puts Its Apps on a Data Diet as Part of a Global Internet Campaign

Many leading apps consume too much data to be viable in parts of the world where data is expensive, says Facebook.

Facebook and other U.S. Internet companies have global ambitions, but products designed for fast, cheap data networks may not work in many parts of the world.

As Facebook eyes the six billion or so people in the world who don’t use its services, the company is learning to economize. Not with money—profits are growing healthily—but with the data demands that Facebook use places on mobile networks.

Jay Parikh and Jason Pontin
Land Grab: Facebook’s Jay Parikh (right) told MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, Jason Pontin, that an effort to extend Internet access to more people around the globe is “the next phase of the company.”

Software engineers are currently working to make Facebook’s apps leaner in order to make them more practical for people who have scarce bandwidth and pay high data rates, said Jay Parikh, head of infrastructure at Facebook, at MIT Technology Review’s Digital Summit event in San Francisco today.

The data diet campaign began after a group of Facebook’s product managers traveled to several African countries last year. “Our apps were crashing all the time and they maxed out their data plan in 40 minutes,” said Parikh. “We now have a whole team of people focused on reducing data consumption. There’s continual effort to drive data use down.”

That effort has already seen the data use of Facebook’s main Android app drop by 50 percent. That trend continues across all of Facebook’s apps, said Parikh.

The move to be thriftier with users’ data is a part of the Internet.org project launched by Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year. Its stated aim is to bring affordable Internet access to everyone on the planet, an effort that could incidentally supply Facebook with many new customers (see “Facebook’s Two Faces”). Parikh described Internet.org as “the next phase of the company.”

The highest profile parts of the project so far have been Zuckerberg’s spending on companies and technology that could see wireless broadband delivered by drones or satellite (see “Facebook’s Drones Will Battle Google’s Balloons to Spread Internet Access” and  “How Google Could Disrupt Global Internet Access by Satellite”). Parikh said that slashing app data use fits into an equally important arm of the project focused on people that can access Internet infrastructure but choose not to.

“There are three or four billion folks out there that walk around in a 2G or 3G area but may not have devices or economic standing, or don’t think the Internet is valuable to them,” said Parikh. Making apps more economical with data is one thing that could help such people, he said. Another is changing how mobile carriers meter and charge for data use. “We’re working with carriers to rethink how they price and offer data plans,” said Parikh.

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