After months of anticipation and leaks, Facebook today is launching exactly what many people expect it to launch: A mobile app platform and an iPad app.
Where before, Facebook users had to use their computers for most of their Facebook gaming and app needs, now they should be able to play and participate from almost any device with a Web browser. And they may get a better experience if it happens to be an Apple iOS device.
In fact, though this launch had been described as an affront to Apple, it’s really not — whenever possible, the new Facebook mobile versions will defer to Apple’s native platform and even its payments system.
A big reason why Facebook apps, especially games, didn’t work on phones was because iOS devices don’t support Flash. Facebook has helped a select set of developers — Audiovroom, Branchout, Flixster, Gilt Groupe, Huffington Post, EA, Moblyng, Storm8, Wooga and Zynga — create HTML5 versions of a selection of their apps and game titles that will work in mobile Web browsers.
But HTML5 still doesn’t offer the performance that many complex apps require, so if the developers have created native versions of their apps, they can also connect Facebook users directly to that native app.
So now, when a friend sends you an invitation to play “Words With Friends,” and you view it on the Facebook app on your iPhone, you can click to play and be taken to the Words With Friends app. If you don’t have the app, you’ll be directed to Apple’s App Store. If you’re on an Android phone, you’ll be taken to an HTML5 version in your mobile Web browser.
The combined native and Web app experience is only available on iOS for now. On Android and other phones with Web browsers, users will default
to the Web experience. Facebook CTO Bret Taylor told AllThingsD today that Facebook is also working on an update to its native Android application.
While many people will appreciate having a more consistent Facebook app experience, the byproduct of this launch is that it could be much easier for users to find new mobile apps through their friends. Mobile app discovery has been a huge challenge for developers, and social could help unlock that problem by showing people what apps their friends are using.
“We really hope that we can fill a gap in app discovery here,” Taylor said.
On the downside, there’s one place Facebook wasn’t able to negotiate a consistent experience for users: payments. This was a major sticking point in ongoing discussions with Apple, as I’d written last week.
Facebook Credits can’t be used to pay for virtual goods within in native iOS apps or mobile Web apps running within a Facebook app on iOS. Instead, users will have to buy separate in-app currency through Apple’s own in-app payment system.
“We realize there’s some inconsistency,” Taylor admitted. He wouldn’t say if Facebook gets a share of revenue for in-app purchases it refers to Apple.
As for the Facebook iPad app, it has been close to being released for over a year, according to people who have seen it and worked on it — though the app has changed in scope throughout. Today at 1 p.m. it will finally be available as part of a universal iOS update.
Along with the ability to use Facebook platform apps, the iPad version will feature “an immersive and full-screen photos experience,” plus new and speedy chat and messages interfaces, Taylor said.
All this is being released three weeks after Facebook held its major developer conference, a week after Apple unveiled its new iOS, and just a few days after iconic Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died.
So why now for the mobile platform? “Honestly — because it’s done now,” Taylor said.
“The reason these [launches] are connected is about ease of use, which is particularly acute on something like a tablet,” he added. “We wanted our native apps to be as feature-complete as possible.”
OK, but the new mobile versions — despite their focus on app discovery — don’t don’t include Facebook’s new live Ticker, which is one of the main ways users can see their friends are engaging with various apps.
That’s true, but probably won’t be for long, Taylor said, explaining “The feature lag is due to challenge of UI design on limited screen real estate.”
As for Facebook’s relationship with Apple? “We have a good relationship with Apple and we’ve worked with them on all our iOS releases,” Taylor said.