Dev

Facebook still plans to lead the charge on the mobile web, HTML5 slurs aside

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In spite of recent statements from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling HTML5 his company’s biggest mistake in mobile, the social network’s hacker army is still working hard on the mobile web.

Today at Facebook’s headquarters, we talked with the company’s iOS team. While it enthused about new efficiencies and feature performance brought about by the Facebook iOS app’s switch from mobile web to native iOS technologies, they said the company wasn’t ready to give up on the mobile web or back down on its strong leadership of new mobile web standards.

Just two days ago, Zuckerberg said onstage at a technology conference, “The biggest mistake we’ve made as a company is betting on HTML5 over native,” referencing Facebook’s heavy use of mobile web technology within its iPhone application.

But in today’s meeting, Doug Purdy, the social network’s director of developer products, said HTML5 work at Facebook isn’t going away.

“I have an entire team of folks that are focused on HTML5,” said Purdy. “And Ringmark continues to be important to us; we have a team of people working on that.”

Facebook has for most of 2012 been leading a hard-and-heavy campaign advocating for the mobile web. For developers, the company has said the platform-agnostic approach can lead to huge distribution benefits.

Facebook went so far as to lead the establishment of the W3C Core Mobile Web Platform Community Group (CoreMob) and open-sourced Ringmark, a benchmark testing suite meant to drive adoption of better standards for the mobile web.

“No one company can fix all of these, but we are very keen to work with the industry, browser vendors, OEMs, carriers, and developers themselves to smooth away those challenges,” said Facebooker James Pearce earlier this year.

But at least for now, those moves were optimistic and forward-thinking, not necessarily linked to Facebook’s day-to-day reality of mobile usage, especially for iPhones, where HTML5 pages within the native shell simply didn’t meet users’ expectations.

The company, which thinks of performance as a feature, stated that this hybridization resulted in a slower, clunkier user experience; as a result, a new app was launched late last month, built entirely with native iOS code and optimized for speed.

The obvious enhancements went over well with iPhone users, who praised the new app for its functionality. But some early reviewers said the development choice “proves write-once-run-anywhere is and always will be impossible.”

Futuristic, yes; impossible, no.

“We can do some pretty amazing things in HTML5,” said Facebooker Mick Johnson today. “I am … long term bullish on HTML5 for everything. And m.facebook.com [Facebook's mobile website] is still the biggest interface we have.”

He went on to note that Facebook’s mobile website claims 300 million users each month, more than double the number of users on Facebook’s iOS and Android apps put together. “We will continute to put a lot of effort into it,” he said.

In a recent chat with JavaScript creator Brendan Eich, we spoke about Facebook’s seeming rejection of mobile web technologies. Eventually, Eich said, “We will close this gap with the native stack. … We realize that the web stack is never perfect, but it always catches up, and it has the broadest reach.”

Eich, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs, and many others have recently pointed out the need to look beyond the “iPhone zone” of the developed world, to work on feature phone technologies and mobile web technologies in order to achieve truly global reach.

Peter Deng, who heads up mobile development for Facebook’s messaging app, talked about how the company had been distributing its mobile engineers among all its other product teams, ensuring that mobile-minded people had their hands in all Facebook’s features.

“What we’re doing slowly over time is making everyone a mobile engineer,” he said. And part of that means developing for all mobile phones, not just iPhones.

“We’ve sent a team of people around the world to see what they use, and we care about everybody, not just you guys,” Deng said to a room full of tech press and analysts today.

“Faebook really represents an opportunity to connect over 900 million people,” said Purdy, “but we hope one day for it to be the entire world.”

And with such global ambitions, Facebook is still very much aware that the mobile web still rules the world outside Silicon Valley, and it will continue to develop technologies and standards to dominate the connected, social experiences of people everywhere.