Saturday, June 18, 2011


Illustration of Facebook mobile interface
There has been a fair amount of press recently about Facebook's plans to challenge the whole app store paradigm with a new HTML5/Javascript development platform that would be capable of bypassing Apple all together. It's an interesting concept, but not a new one if true.

When Netscape originally came out with their browser back in the 1990's there was a lot of talk about how the browser would replace applications and eliminate Microsoft's domination. "The browser is the computer" was kind of the battle cry. Here we are nearly twenty years later and while browser based applications are orders of magnitude more powerful than they were back then we still haven't reached that supposed state of Nirvana. HTML5 and Javascript are in theory the roads to that promised land.

I really question the concept that applications that run in the browser somehow magically eliminate the need for app stores or stand alone applications. The whole world is not connected 24/7 to the Internet and there are a lot of gray areas where you can be connected but only at a significant cost. Coverage is constantly improving but there are likely always going to be places where the economics do not support the Internet being available at a price that most people would consider reasonable. The good news is that so long as you have sufficient local storage you don't need to load browser based apps from a remote server. They'll run just fine when loaded from local storage assuming they don't require remote resources.

So, what do we know about Facebook's new technology? We're told it's called "Project Spartan" but beyond that details are sketchy. It's supposedly going to debut on iOS based devices with support for Android and other platforms assumed to happen at a later date. Since  the HTML5/Javascript combo are reported to be at the heart of this project that seems like a fairly reasonable scenario.

The theory is that Facebook can muscle in on some of the revenues that Google and Apple are collecting from their app stores. It's not a bad idea in theory, though Facebook does have a potential channel conflict here. Right now they depend on those app stores to get their client out. Going to a web browser based client would side step that issue but Facebook would generate a lot of bad feelings which could translate into all sort of subtly obstructionist moves by Apple and Google.

There have already been signs that the relationship between Apple and Facebook is strained. Take for instance the absence of an iPad specific Facebook client more than a year after Apple debuted their wonder tablet. Yes, you can run the iPhone client but frankly it looks cockroach ugly when expanded 2x to fill the screen. Another sign is the fact that Apple chose to incorporate Twitter into iOS 5.0, not Facebook. There are now rumors that the iPad Facebook app will be out in the next few weeks but there is no way this should have taken as long as it did.

Facebook has been showing sings of plateauing in recent months, particularly in the US. They apparently want to do an IPO early next year and values of one hundred billion dollars are being bandied about. They are going to have to come up with a pretty good story as to who they will continue to see excellent revenue growth over the next several years if they want to pull that off. Project Spartan may play a significant part in that effort.

In researching this topic one thing that interested me is the assumption that web browser based apps are essentially a return to client/server computing. This doesn't have to be true. So long as you have access to the local file system and other resources there is no reason you can't write stand alone applications. There are potential resource issues, particularly on constrained mobile devices if the underlying technologies are not efficient enough but that is a separate issue. Also, many "thick clients" are highly dependent on remote servers in order to function. Try using Google's navigation app with your phone in airplane mode and see how functional it is.

Image via Wikipedia
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