Facebook has developed a free official iPad app which may launch in the next few weeks, according to anonymous sources quoted by the New York Times. To date, Facebook has left iPad owners to use the Facebook for iPhone app or m.facebook.com, neither of which are optimized for the tablet device. To fill the gap, several third party developers released unofficial apps such as Friendly and MyPad that have sat high on the iOS charts and attained upwards of 500,000 daily active users and 2 million monthly active users.
While many of these developers knew they were operating in a risky space, the impending release of an official Facebook for iPad app could significantly curtail traffic to their apps, forcing them to differentiate further or go in a different direction entirely.
Features and a Purposefully Delayed Launch
Those familiar with the matter say the official Facebook for iPad app has been under development for as long as a year and that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been directly involved in the design process. The app supposedly includes overhauled versions of Chat and Groups along with other tablet optimizations, and will allow users to shoot and upload video.
Joe Hewitt, who no longer works at Facebook but was the developer of the original Facebook for iPhone app, said that “At some point I came to the conclusion that Facebook on iPhone OS could not truly exceed the website until I could adapt it to a screen size closer to a laptop. It needed to support more than one column of information at a time.” The iPad version might be big enough to support a multi column view, allowing navigation between different areas of the app without returning to an in-app home screen. Chat on Facebook for iPad could also use a multi-pane interface to support simultaneous conversations similar to the Facebook for BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet app interface shown below.
Techcrunch reports that Facebook may have deliberately delayed launching the app as leverage over Apple, potentially to attain a deeper integration in the new iOS5 mobile operating system. Facebook may not have wanted to give Apple’s device a selling point as the battle for mobile gamers heats up between Facebook’s supposedly planned HTML5 mobile site and iOS. By delaying its release until the HTML5 site was ready, it could push Facebook for iPad users to do their gaming there rather than download apps from Apple’s App Store.
Still, the New York Times noted “Apple also plans to help Facebook promote the new application by featuring it prominently in the App Store, said a person familiar with the plans for the app.”
Doom or More Attention for Third Party Apps?
It’s reasonable to believe most Facebook-using iPad owners would prefer the consistent experience of an official Facebook for iPad app. A launch coinciding with App Store promotion could cause an immediate flocking of third-party app users to the free official app, with more migrating over time as they become aware of a Facebook for iPad’s existence.
Currently, the third-party pack’s front runner in terms of usage is Oecoway’s Friendly for iPad, despite losing roughly 200,000 DAU to drop to just under 600,00o DAU, and slipping from 25th to 59th in the top free iPad apps in the last month. The premium Friendly Plus has been between spots 45 and 30 on the top paid iPad app charts. Note that an Facebook API about two months ago may have caused Friendly to stumble, dropping out of the top of the iOS charts, leading to further decline.
Meanwhile, in the last month Loytr’s MyPad for iPad (formally Facepad) has grown from 254,00 to 428,000 DAU and climbed from 56 to 3 on the top free iPad app chart before settling around the 11th spot. Its premium MyPad+ topped the paid iPad charts last month and is currently in the 6th spot. Other less popular third-party apps include iFace, Ultimate for Facebook, sobees lite for Facebook, and Facely for Facebook HD. All of these stats come from AppData, our tracking service covering traffic growth for apps on Facebook and App Store rankings for apps on iOS.
All of these third-party developers rely on upselling users from their free apps to more robust paid versions. This model could be undercut by the presence of a slick, full-featured free official app, wreaking havoc on the livelihood of these developers.
We spoke with Oecoway co-founder Cyril Moutran this morning. He said Facebook app would probable see a lot of early usage, which would “make our position more difficult.” However, he believes Friendly might even gain users because the official app’s launch will draw the attention to the App Store from iPad owners who were using Facebook’s mobile site. “When they hear about the release, they’ll check the App Store, see there are other apps, and give them a try,” he told us.
That’s an optimistic vision we don’t share. The company’s plan to continue working improving its style options, photo experience, and account switching capabilities doesn’t sound like enough differentiation to convince users to pay when an official free app is available.
Loytr co-founder Cole Ratias said that his company is “excited to have [Facebook] join us in the App Store”, though we don’t quite buy that. “We have plans to evolve with our users as far as social, opposed to specifically Facebook.” This leads us to believe MyPad will be bringing in content from other social platforms, similar to how Flipboard or Pulse does. The company has also hinted at launching a gaming platform which could compete with Facebook’s HTML5 game portal.
Differentiation is Key
We see much more potential in Loytr’s approach of differentiating by building functionality that probably won’t be in the official Facebook for iPad app. Gaming and wider social integrations could mean that MyPad won’t be directly competing with Facebook’s app. Though these independent developers have established a head start, it appears the boom times are over for third-party iPad Facebook app development. We’ll be watching to see who can successfully innovate themselves out of this tight spot, and who will watch their users slip away to Facebook official latecomer.