Viral channels for Android apps on Facebook are coming in a few weeks

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By Kim-Mai Cutler Comment

One of the bits of news hidden in this week’s flood of Facebook marketing and HTML5 announcements is that viral channels for native Android apps are coming to the platform in a few weeks.

That will finally bring the mobile platform to parity between Android and iOS. Developers for both platforms will be able to promote their apps in the news feed and through requests and bookmarks. If a person sees activity from a mobile app in their news feed, they’ll be driven to the app if they have it or the right page in the iTunes store or Android Market for downloading it. Facebook first unveiled these mobile channels back in October, but they were just for iOS and mobile web apps.

“We’ll be enabling native Android apps starting in the coming weeks,” said James Pearce, who joined as Facebook’s new head of mobile developer relations a few months ago from Sencha. “If you’ve already got an Android app, this is a  clear opportunity for distribution.”

After years of being a must-have for web properties that want viral growth, Facebook is now positioning itself as a critical way of getting users for mobile apps too. The issue is that Facebook doesn’t own the lower parts of the mobile stack, which are controlled by Apple and outright rival Google. It would be amazing to have an app store that’s designed in a social way from the ground up and that comes pre-installed on phones. But Apple isn’t willing to give up control and Google has its own competing social network now.

Even despite these limitations, Facebook’s mobile platform is starting to show some promising traction. Pearce reiterated statistics the company recently shared, that Facebook is driving about 60 million unique users to mobile applications 320 million times per month.

While it isn’t clear how many of these go to smartphone versus featurephone apps, 60 million monthly uniques is no small slice of the overall pie. Flurry estimated around Christmas that there were 264 million active Android and iOS devices in circulation, a number that is probably closer to 300 million now. Plus, Facebook said that the amount of traffic it sees from the mobile web is about twice as much as it sees for any native app on iOS or Android, according to Bret Taylor’s keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday.

Taylor said on Monday that the company has to address three issues on behalf of mobile developers to make HTML5 work: 1) distribution 2) fragmentation and 3) monetization. The viral channels will help solve the first problem.

Now Facebook is trying to fix the last two with an industry working group affiliated with the W3C, the international standards body for the web. It will help browser makers adopt the features that mobile developers most want.

“It’s more about pushing or curating the specifications that are important to developers,” Pearce said. “If you’re an handset manufacturer or a browser maker, HTML5 is a vast space. There are an array of possibilities. But there are some APIs that developers really want. If you’re a photo sharing app, you literally can’t build an HTML5 version because browsers don’t provide access to the camera.”

The hitch is that Apple and Google, maker of Safari for iOS and Android’s pre-installed browser and Chrome, aren’t in the working group.

Secondly Facebook co-created a test suite, called Ringmark, that helps developers understand which mobile browsers support the features they want to build.

“There are lots of specifications in the HTML5 arena which have yet to be built,” Pearce said. “The browsers that are on these devices are constantly evolving. It’s not a stationary target.”

He added, “Our test suite includes a series of rings, which represent priorities. Ring ‘0’ is what browsers do today. Ring ‘1’ what they’ll need to do year or two and so on.” In Ring 1 are up-and-coming features like camera access, orientation lock and hardware acceleration. Then down the line, there are more advanced specifications like support for WebGL, which would power 3-D games. “It’s an obvious bottleneck,” Pearce said.

The last piece is payments. On mobile phones, Facebook users can pay through standard methods like credit card or Paypal. But this week, the company added the ability to do carrier billing with several of the largest mobile operators in the world. Although Facebook is likely losing money or barely breaking even on these types of mobile web payments because of the steep share they must pay carriers, the company is probably comfortable eating costs until mobile web-based payments becomes a credible alternative to in-app purchases on iOS or Android.

“Our goal is to maximize the opportunity for developers to get their apps monetized through these kinds of channels,” Pearce said.