New Screenshots and functionality details of Facebook’s forthcoming HTML5 mobile site and application platform have emerged. Documentation of the updated mobile site and platform, externally referred to as Project Spartan, was briefly published to the Facebook Developers site last night, and TechCrunch recorded screenshots before Facebook took the pages down. We dug into the documentation and found many interesting facts about the mobile site that will impacts users and developers.
The Facebook mobile site will receive a significant redesign, users will be able to authorize and use third-party mobile apps from within the mobile site, these apps will be accessed through bookmarks shown alongside Facebook’s in-house apps, and users will have the ability to post to the news feed and send Requests/invites that are delivered as notifications.
For developers, the same SDK and APIs used for Facebook web applications will work on mobile, a new authentication mode called Authenticated Referrals will allow users who’ve already installed an app to login with two taps, and mobile apps will be optimized to work across all iOS and Android devices.
Sources at the company told us last week there would be a major mobile launch in “three weeks” but TechCrunch is reporting that the date has been moved up along with the native Facebook iPad app launch. It will likely come at either Apple’s iPhone event on Tuesday or a Facebook press event on Monday. Regardless, these updates are coming, though Facebook will surely continue to refine the mobile platform. How users and developers react will influence the power dynamic between Facebook, Apple, and Android, and could be an important determinant of Facebook’s long-term success. (We first wrote about Facebook’s HTML5 strategy for third-party mobile web apps in February, four months before it was reported in other mainstream press like TechCrunch.)
Here we’ll take a look at the biggest changes evident from the leaked documentation and what they mean:
Mobile Site Redesign
The current design of the mobile site is not especially intuitive. Users must browse to entirely separate screens to access core functionality such as notifications or the publisher. This can makes the browsing experience exhausting and cause users to spend less time on the mobile site.
The new redesign previewed in the leaked documentation and seen here shows a more persistently available top navigation bar that lets users access their notifications, Messages, and friend request with fewer clicks. The notifications button reveals an overlaid drop down rather than opening a different screen, so alerts about new activity can be checked without losing one’s place on the mobile site.
Third-Party App Access From a Bookmarks Menu
News that users would be able to access third-party Facebook apps from mobile leaked months ago, but the documentation reveals exactly how they’ll be accessed. A button on the mobile site’s top navigation bar will slide out a list of all of a user’s installed apps — both Facebook’s in-house apps such as Events and Groups, as well as third-party apps and games.
A bookmark will appear in this menu for any app a user has installed. Thanks to “bookmark synching”, a bookmark will also appear on the homepage of a user’s web version of Facebook. Users will also be able to search for new or previously installed games through the mobile site bookmarks menu. This will make Facebook mobile search engine optimization important for mobile apps looking to gain new users.
Facebook won’t require developers to use a different SDK or set of APIs on mobile than they use to build apps on Facebook.com. This means some developers will simply have to redesign their apps for mobile, rather than having to re-code them. This could help quickly populate the mobile platform with apps. More complicated apps that use flash such as games will need to switch to HTML5, though Facebook has reportedly been working with a large set of top developers to make their apps compatible with the mobile platform.
Two-Tap Login and Requests Notifications for Growth
The authorization given to a mobile app upon install will be valid on the web as well, so users won’t have to grant permissions to an app twice. Once a user has installed an app, they’ll be able to quickly log into it later with a two tap process called Authenticated Referrals – one tap to select the app, and a second to confirm they are entering a third-party app.
Along with using or playing with an app, users can publish content to the news feed through a familiar sharing prompt. They’ll also be able to send Requests to friends, such as an invite to play or a call to complete an in-app action. These Requests are delivered to friends as notifications that they can click through to open an app.
Right now, these notifications don’t look especially compelling, and therefore might inspire users to try new apps or reengage with old ones. Facebook may need to make mobile app Request notifications more appealing if it wants to attract developers to the Platform with the opportunity for strong viral growth.
Initially, the Like button social plugin will be available for use within mobile platform apps. Developers can use the button to create a lightweight sharing flow. As part of the permissions process developers will be able to request a user’s email address so they can communicate with them, or market to them, outside their apps.
Technologically, there are still some functionality disadvantages of using HTML5 mobile sites rather than native smartphone apps. For example, they only native apps can access device hardware such as the camera and GPS. Facebook will need to make up for this with virality if it wants its mobile Platform to become popular with developers.
There’s no mention in the documentation of Facebook Credits spotted earlier this year, so its still unclear how payments will be processed within mobile apps. A big part of why Facebook needed to create the mobile platform was to allow it earn money from app sales and in-app purchases, which can’t happen if its is merely a social layer within apps sold through Apple or Android’s mobile app stores.
Launching the Platform without Credits support could attract some developers who don’t want to pay Facebook’s 30% tax. However, punching credit card details into a mobile device can be especially difficult and lead to significant drop-off, so developers may actually want Facebook Credits support because it could increase sales volumes. Third-party mobile payments companies could also step in here to facilitate developer monetization.
Facebook is on the cusp of a serious turning point. If it can make the mobile Platform fun for users and attractive to developers, it could create an important new revenue stream, ride the growth of smart phones, and gain leverage against Apple and Google. If users find accessing third-party Facebook mobile app clunky and developers don’t see enough potential for viral growth, though, the Platform could fail and Facebook might get cut out of the mobile money stream.