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Facebook Wants to Do to Mobile Apps What It Did to the Web, and That’s O.K.

5 minute read

The most striking thing about the keynote at Facebook’s f8 conference in San Francisco was something that only became apparent after it was over: Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives spent an hour on stage talking about new stuff, and none of it was about Facebook.

Or at least not if you define Facebook as being the social-networking site and app of the same name.

Instead, all the news–and there was tons of it–related to features Facebook is rolling out to help mobile developers build more powerful apps and make more money from them.

A sampling of what got announced:

  • New features for signing into apps using Facebook will let you customize your privacy settings and log in anonymously;
  • AppLinks is a standard that lets mobile apps integrate with each other, so that one app can send you directly to a specific feature in another app, which can then route you back to a specific place in the original one;
  • The company is also offering technology to let mobile apps that normally need web access to store data locally on a device, thereby enabling them to work in offline mode;
  • There’s a new mobile Like button and tools that allow developers to let users share content with specific friends through Facebook Messenger;
  • The Facebook Audience Network will let apps display ads sold by Facebook, and allow marketers to target their ads using information Facebook knows about users, much as already happens on Facebook itself.
  • Zuckerberg described the company’s vision as offering a “cross-platform platform,” competing in some respects with Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone without forcing developers to build apps for a specific mobile operating system.

    It’s a logical extension of what the company has been doing for the majority of its existence: Providing web developers with features that (A) help them offer powerful features without having to build them; and (B) lash them tightly to Facebook, thereby making the web even more dependent on Mark Zuckerberg’s social network as the primary way to keep track of people and their identities.

    At the keynote, Zuckerberg said that third-party sites and apps make almost a half-trillion calls to the Facebook API a day–each one representing an instance of Facebook powering something on a site or app other than Facebook itself. Making this infrastructure reliable is so important that he declared that the company has retired its famous mantra–“Move fast and break things”–and now wants to move fast while ensuring that it’s providing robust infrastructure for all the companies that depend on it.

    People who don’t like or trust Facebook–a minority, but a passionately vocal one–presumably won’t like the idea of its tendrils stretching deeper and deeper into more and more apps. But how should the rest of us feel about the prospect?

    Me, I’m O.K. with it–optimistic, even, that it will lead to better apps. Here’s why:

  • The alternative, oftentimes, is nothing. A pretty high percentage of mobile app developers are small shops with a very limited ability to build complex features from scratch. Facebook’s goal is to let them make their apps more sophisticated by plugging in a few lines of code–a strategy the web has embraced for years now, and which has (mostly) made it a better place.
  • Facebook’s competition is usually another big, powerful company. If apps don’t work with the Facebook Audience Network to monetize themselves through targeted ads, they’ll do something similar with Google or somebody else. Better for Google to face competition from Facebook than for it to end up dominating advertising even more than it already does. And as Zuckerberg said, much of what Facebook is doing provides an alternative to what Apple, Google and Microsoft are doing with their respective operating systems.
  • The privacy controls look reasonable. Consumers have memories like elephants, and Facebook’s reputation is still tarnished by blunders it made years ago when it moved too fast and broke too many things–such as with Beacon, a 2007 advertising technology that left members surprised to find information about their activities elsewhere showing up on their feeds. But at f8, the keynote began with demos of the new granular privacy controls and anonymous login option, both of which should help users take advantage of the Facebook-ization of mobile apps in a way that works for them.
  • You don’t have to be a Facebook hater to worry, sometimes, about one company controlling so much of the technological plumbing that powers other companies’ services and apps. Ultimately, though, Facebook has became so essential in so many places because it’s built so many useful technologies and has done a better job than anyone else of selling the world on their advantages.

    To put it another way: If the idea of Facebook being everywhere bothers you, don’t blame Facebook. Blame everybody else who’s failed, in most instances, to beat it to the punch or provide more compelling alternatives.

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