Facebook Seeks Failure by Challenging Apple’s App Store

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Facebook is working on a super secret project called Project Spartan that would wrest control of mobile app distribution away from the likes of Apple and Google, and put it into the hands where CEO Mark Zuckerberg is delusional enough to think it belongs, Facebook. This is the kind of hubris that only phenomenally successful kids in their early 20s are capable of confusing with reality.

Facebook

TechCrunch’s MG Siegler claims to have seen Project Spartan, and describes it as an effort to harness the power of HTML 5 to deliver Web apps to iPhone, Android, and other smartphone platforms, though initially it will be targeted specifically at iPhone and iPad users using Safari Mobile.

The idea is to work with developers, including Facebook gaming powerhouse Zynga and The Huffington Post (which is owned by AOL, as is TechCrunch), to develop mobile games and other mobile apps using HTML 5, and then distribute those games and apps through Facebook’s mobile site, complete with a Facebook wrapper of some sort that includes Various forms of Facebook interaction.

By doing so, the company hopes to make Facebook an app delivery powerhouse not beholden to Apple, or to Google when and if they project branches out to Android, or Microsoft for Windows Phone, etc. To reach this goal, the company has had all of 80 developers working for all of a couple of months, and the team is believed to be a few weeks out from rolling its first such apps.

In addition to showing that Steve Jobs isn’t the boss of Mark Zuckerberg, Project Spartan would also allow Facebook mobile apps to use Facebook Credits as their currency of choice, further centralizing power with the social networking giant.

So many reasons

On the face of it, there are many reasons to paint the move in a positive light. For one thing, Facebook has somewhere north of 600 million users. That’s a massive customer base from which to launch any kind of new service or product.

For another…ummmm. Let’s see…I have it somewhere… ::shuffles through some notes::

OK, that’s the only good reason I can come up with for Facebook to waste its time and resources trying to dethrone Apple as the king of mobile app distribution. The company has a crap-ton of users, and if Facebook can harness even a low single-digit percentage of them into using these Web apps, it would mean millions of eyeballs and potentially large revenue streams coming into the company.

It’s the reasons for and the goal of the project that I think the height of stupidity. Mr. Siegler wrote, “Facebook will never admit this, but those familiar with the project believe the intention is very clear: to use Apple’s own devices against them to break the stranglehold they have on mobile app distribution.”

Are you kidding me? Facebook is going to use iPhone against Apple? To break the stranglehold the App Store has on app distribution to the iPhone? Dan Frommer may think this is exactly the kind of stuff Facebook should be doing, but there’s one super obvious reason why it will fail: If Facebook is successful enough with Project Spartan for it to be considered a threat to Apple or its App Store, Apple will kill it on iOS devices.

Lessons that even a child should learn

To ignore this reality is why I started this piece off by calling Mr. Zuckerberg a wildly successful child. It takes some willful, child-like self-denial to ignore the #1 lesson of the last few years when it comes to Apple’s iOS empire that anyone participating in or competing against Apple should have been able to learn.

For app developers, that lesson is that if Apple likes what you are doing, the company is likely to do it, too. For competitors, the lesson is that Apple will change the rules if it doesn’t want you to be a competitor.

When it comes to Web apps, for instance, Facebook is literally building a business model around Apple’s support for said Web apps. Apple’s first answer to those who wanted apps on their iPhone before the launch of the App Store was to tell developers to make Web apps, and today it’s possible for users to save those Web apps to their home screen so that they can be launched like any other app, a feature added by Apple.

If Facebook starts making a lot of money distributing apps to iPhones and iPads without going through the App Store, all Apple has to do to stop it is to change its support for Web apps. Apple has certainly shown that it is willing to change the rules of the game at the slightest provocation, and I personally have zero doubt such would be the case with this folly.

Apple’s entire ecosystem is built around control. Why would Apple willingly cede that control? There is no reason, and the bottom line is that Apple won’t cede this point.

On top of that, Facebook is not likely to attract enough developers to make Facebook apps a destination unto itself. That makes Facebook’s mobile apps service something people have to think about when they’re looking for apps, not a replacement to the App Store as a whole. With that in mind, I’d be surprised if the company can convert a significant number of its users into users of these new apps.

All that said, if the main point of Project Spartan is to make it possible for Facebook’s users to play all of their regular games like Farmville…and whatever other else there is on their iPhones and iPads, more power to the company.

If the goal is to wrest control away from Apple, it’s childish, and a fine demonstration of why Facebook needs adult supervision.

Can’t we all just get along?

Lastly, I’m personally damned tired of tech giants thinking they need to control everything that everyone else is doing. Google, Apple, Facebook, and even Microsoft would make much more compelling solutions if they would work together where it makes sense and let each company play to its strengths.

Apple makes the best hardware and software (clearly a subjective opinion, but one I’m comfy with), while Google’s search and map solutions are hands down the best. Google’s voice commands (on both iOS and Android) are also king of the roost. Facebook is the absolute dictator of social networking, while Microsoft…I’m sure there’s something Microsoft does well.

I’m not saying I don’t want these companies to compete, but I do wish they’d compete where it makes sense and cooperate where it doesn’t. Google making a smartphone OS, Microsoft wanting into search, and Facebook trying to compete as a mobile app distributor are all examples of craptacular corporate thinking.

Instead, Facebook should have an awesome iPad app, and Facebook should have been up there with Twitter when Apple showed off the system-level login feature that will be available in iOS 5. For that matter, Ping should be firmly integrated with Facebook.

There’s a lot that the two companies could do together if one or both of them would simply accept that there are some things the other is better at doing.

Some imagery courtesy of iStockPhoto, with thanks to Jeff Gamet for his foolish contribution to this piece.

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Comments

archimedes

No, tell us what you *really* think, Bryan! wink
Best piece of rhetoric I’ve read all day.

archimedes

I’m not sure what Microsoft does *well* either, but they do have a vast user base, a near-stranglehold on the “office” software market, and a rather successful game console and on-line game play service. They also have a phone OS which isn’t a ripoff of iOS.

But combining Facebook + Zynga + Huffington Post? Yikes, a triple-decker [garbage] sandwich doesn’t taste any better.

Nemo

I wonder how Facebook intends to get around Apple’s patents and copyrights on its iOS.  Even the Librarian of Congress (LOC)in his opinion, which hasn’t yet been affirmed by any federal court, that users can jailbreak the iPhones which they own, made it clear that third parties are not protected by his opinion in providing jailbreaking software.  I might have a way of getting around the limitation of the LOC’s opinion.  I wonder if Facebook is up to what I have in mind?

And, if Facebook is up to what I have in mind, it might not be altogether a bad thing to wrest exclusive control of iOS apps from Apple, given Apple’s demonstrated inability to keep its politics out of censoring apps for its App Store.  Even though I personally can’t stand Facebook, those privacy invading creeps, it would be good to return Apple to the status that most business must accept, which is keeping the politics of its senior executives out of its business and confined to their personal political donations and other personal activity.

It shows what a sorry state things have come to for me to possibly be pulling for Facebook.

Bryan Chaffin

Thanks, Archimedes. smile

On Microsoft: I was definitely taking a rhetorical potshot. I have respect for some things Microsoft.

Nemo, on patents, I think Web apps would be safe for Facebook. After all, until Apple kills them, it’s an invited form of app for iOS devices.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Nemo: Facebook is doing this in the browser with web apps, not through sideloaded apps on jailbroken phones.

Look, as Brian Hall (developer of Missing Sync) points out from his long experience in the mobile market (going back to Newton)... Device vendors can do one of two, but not both: curate or be sole source for the platform. The collapse of the 30% in-app content requirement and Facebook’s reluctance to bow to Apple’s controlling ways indicate to me that what Mr. Hall says is more immutable law of nature than disgruntled developer opinion.

Apple iOS level control is not necessary for building great hardware and software, or ensuring a pleasant user experience. Google’s Android experience exceeds Apple’s iPhone experience in every way imaginable, despite all the imagined problems Apple fans claim we Android users suffer and despite the very loose control (if you want to call it that) Google exerts on Android. Apple iOS level control is necessary for building and securing an exclusive tollbooth. I still can’t figure out how that does anything but suck money out of user pockets.

Nemo

Bryan:  And there is a problem with your conclusion that Apple can simply close down web apps to block a too successful Facebook App Store.  To begin with Apple can’t disable HTML 5.  If Apple were to pull HTML 5 from its Safari Mobile browser, that would not only knock Safari out of the class of modern browsers, it would force Safari back to Flash and AIR, which are the only viable alternative to HTML 5.  So Apple can’t do that, which means that Facebook and developers should be fine using HTML 5, CSS, and Javascript to make web apps.

But can’t Apple simply yank support for web apps out of its iOS?  iOS has had mature support for web apps since its earliest days, when it was known as the iPhone OS.  That support is not only crucial for many developers who rely on it; it also helps Apple’s iOS blunt the competitive threat of the Web OS, which uses a development model of HTML, Javascript, and CSS, which are exactly the basis of iOS’s support for web apps.  But the stronger and dispositive reason that would block Apple from removing support for web apps from iOS to prevent Facebook from competing is that the antitrust/competition authorities here and in the EU won’t stand for it.  Such a thing would a patently anti-competitive move, which the FTC and DOJ here and the EU’s Competition Commission in Europe would immediately move to sanction, with sanctions so severe that Apple would have to comply with the demand that it maintain support for web apps in iOS. 

This is especially true for the publishers, such as the Financial Times, which intend to use web apps to avoid paying Apple 30% on the App Store.  Apple has already in its official statements from its CEO, Steve Jobs, blessed competing with its App Store by means of web apps.  That did much to undermine any case that could be brought against Apple for antitrust in making the App Store the sole place for publishers’ publications.  A principal reason why a case wouldn’t lie was because publishers have web apps and Safari to reach their existing and potential customers independently of Apple.  If Apple takes that away, then government antitrust/competition actions against Apple look pretty good, at least in so far as Apple not being permitted to remove support for web apps from its iOS.

And, of course, if Apple decided that it would no longer enhance iOS’s ability to support web apps, it would not be beyond the power of courts here and in Europe to give competitors, say Facebook, the authority program support for web apps into iOS that Apple would have to install or permit third parties to install.  I can just see Bosco now smacking his chops. 

And Bryan, I don’t think Apple saying that competition in providing an app store for its iOS devices doesn’t make sense will satisfy antitrust regulators.  I think the regulators reply will be that it makes excellent sense under the law as it exists today.

adamC

@Bosco

I believe this is just part of your wildest imagination - “Google?s Android experience exceeds Apple?s iPhone experience in every way imaginable, “

LOL

xmattingly

Zuckerberg is a control freak to a degree that is going to eventually be harmful to his company. He wants absolute control over data that runs through Facebook’s servers? Fine. As Nemo said, there is quite a bit of privacy invasion that I think people are starting to get tired of… at least people who value their privacy and non-devotees. Hell, my Facebook account has been hacked twice in the past year alone, and that has never happened to me on any other internet service that I use.

Also, it’s already been shown that interest in Facebook has peaked… at least in North America. In my opinion, Facebook is near a point where they are going to need to learn to partner with other businesses in order to grow, or they’re going to start to decline.

Bryan Chaffin

Nemo, your points about antitrust are well taken.

I don’t doubt, however, that Apple is capable of finding a way to block Facebook Web apps if the company wants to, but you are right to point out that regulators could certainly put the kibosh on Apple’s kiboshing.

Bryan Chaffin

Google?s Android experience exceeds Apple?s iPhone experience in every way imaginable [..]

We must agree to strongly disagree on this, Brad.

To reiterate a point you and I have discussed many a time, what either of us dislikes about either platform does not invalidate what the other likes. There is still plenty of room in the marketplace for both platforms. smile

geoduck

The question that I came up with immediately is what apps?

I mean if they port FarmVille et.al. to HTML5 then I really don’t give a damn. There are web games out there and as I understand it many are already porting over to HTML5. I don’t see Apple caring about casual web games.

If they try to produce something that might be, oh I don’t know, useful in some way, they they are not competing with the App Store. That brings them head to head with GoogleApps and GoogleDocs and that’s NOT a fight they can win. Google is too far ahead both in the quality of their service and penetration. I don’t see anyone, certanly not corporate users, dropping the known (GoogleDocs) from a company they have known for years for the unknown (Sparten) from a company best known for FarmVille and regular privacy violations.

The other side of this I haven’t noticed anyone mentioning is that in many corporate environments FaceBook is blocked.

The one up side to this that I see is that it will further push HTML5 adoption. That IMO is a good thing.

Jamie

‘Zuckerberg is a control freak. . . ’ (quote wasn’t working)

That’s because he’s barely entered puberty. Apple or no Apple, I would have to be insane to entrust Facebook with everything they seem to want (and douby insane to do it with a business), maybe I’ll change my tune when Zuck starts shaving. I expect that Facebook will see a MySpace-like drop when a huge chunk of their 600 million grow up a tad and move on.

And hey, why is it that Android fans seem to have forgotten that a lot of what they have has been available to varying degrees on jailbroken iOS devices practically from the start? We had crappy, unplayable N64 emulators on our iPhones waaaaay before you guys ever even thought of them. wink

geoduck

I expect that Facebook will see a MySpace-like drop when a huge chunk of their 600 million grow up a tad and move on

Maybe it’s already happening

What’s funny is I read a lot of news about how FaceBook is getting ready to issue an IPO. There is no way in hell I would put a dime in FaceBook.

Nemo

Dear geoduck:  John Rubinstein at HP thinks that you can make useful apps with just HTML 5, CSS, and Javascript (Web 2.0 Tech).  Whether his new rendition of Web OS will go beyond those Web 2.0 tools to develop a full native IDE is something that I am eager to see.  I also thought that Web 2.0 Tech was too limited in its capabilities to develop robust apps, such as the most intense games or apps which physicians use to remotely monitor a patients’ beside monitors, but Rubinstein, while leading Palm, disagreed with that view. 

Be that as it may, Web 2.0 Tech can make a lot of useful apps beside office suites that could pose a serious threat to the App Store.  A fellow by the name of Jobs once told developers that they could do a lot with just web apps.  If Facebook and its developers do a lot with just web apps, that may be enough to discomfit Apple and, perhaps, provide viable competition to the App Store.

However, I think that Apple can deploy one big and perhaps, decisive advantage:  Its easy of use and tight integration of the App Store and the iOS.  I think that side-loading has been such a dismal bust, notwithstanding that some have made successful very small businesses with it, is that the App Store is so easy, so cheap, so secure, and so complete in its selection of apps, except where Apple’s politics censor apps, that most customers have neither the need or interest to look elsewhere.  That is the big advantage that Apple will have over a Facebook App Store, and it is an advantage that regulators will permit as being consistent with competition, Apple’s IP rights, and Apple’s legitimate interest in providing an effective security model for its App Store.  Though I imagine that Facebook will try to use its accursed “social” to counteract Apple’s advantage in integration, it is not clear, at least to me, that any such strategy will be effective.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@Bosco

I believe this is just part of your wildest imagination - ?Google?s Android experience exceeds Apple?s iPhone experience in every way imaginable, ?

LOL

As Bryan noted above, it’s just how I call it, having actually used both platforms as my day-to-day phone. When I pick up an iPhone, it’s a nice hardware package, but it still feels like a Fisher Price toy compared with my N1 running Gingerbread.

geoduck

Nemo:
I agree.  HTML 5, CSS, and Javascript are powerful tools for building both web apps and freestanding apps. That’s not the question. I just don’t see this being a threat to the AppStore.

I guess I’m confused. I understood from Bryan’s article that FaceBook Apps were going to be web based, he refers to them as such several times. As such they go up against GoogleApps not the AppStore. That’s where the whole discussion of Apple possibly trying to block HTML5 web apps and anti trust issues came in. 

If they are talking about full apps such as the AppStore has then the issue is how to get them on iOS devices. If they set up their own AppStore then they will cater to just the tiny percentage of users that will try the apps AND have jail-broken iOS devices. That would be less than a mosquito sized nuisance to Apple, not a threat to the AppStore. I don’t see anything FaceBook could roll out that would be likely to entice a large percentage of iOS users to jail break.

I think we agree with Bryan. This effort is doomed.The only question is how much money will FaceBook lose in the attempt.

Nemo

Dear Geoduck:  Jobs thought, at one time, that web apps would be more than sufficient to make a rich universe of apps.  If he was right and not just blowing smoke up competitors’ asses, then web apps alone might provide viable competition to even Apple’s native apps.  After all, it comes down to what users choose to use.

And native apps are not out of the question.  There may be a legal way around Apple’s restriction on third parties providing jailbreaking software.  Though the method is legally untried, it, I think, would work.  But Facebook is so unappealing as a client, that it would have pay at least premium billing to get me to work for it.

furbies

Does Shumckerberg think that everyone has either:
a: unlimited data on their iDevices
or
b: a bottomless wallet to pay for the internet access

Proper Apps are still the way to go for most, if not nearly all iDevice owners.

Besides, just imagine wading through all the ads that will have to be sold to pay for the games etc….

sflocal

Apple iOS level control is not necessary for building great hardware and software, or ensuring a pleasant user experience.

Yes it is.  How many more numerous articles posted everywhere on the net about the next batch of Android malware - thru the Marketplace - will be needed for you to realize Android as a huge problem with its wild-west mentality?

Heck, even android fans are entertaining the possibility of doing exactly what Apple has been doing since day one, and have a curated marketplace.

Keep living in your bubble…

Lee Dronick

“...develop mobile games and other mobile apps…with a Facebook wrapper of some sort…”

Oh God! They are going to look and work like Facebook! I shudder at the thought of it.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@sflocal: Keep paying Apple to live in your bubble. On Android, we now have two major app stores. Amazon’s is highly curated, so fan needs to entertain the idea (whatever that means). But since it’s not exclusive, Amazon is not in a position to stifle innovation on the platform.

At this point, I’d feel comfortable getting my 88 year old grandmother an Android phone or tablet. Any benefits of all the silly control on the iOS side at this point are past diminishing returns, and just costing users money.

archimedes

As Bryan noted above, it?s just how I call it, having actually used both platforms as my day-to-day phone. When I pick up an iPhone, it?s a nice hardware package, but it still feels like a Fisher Price toy compared with my N1 running Gingerbread.

Bosco, I think what you’re articulating is that Android has compelling advantages for *you*; this isn’t true for everyone. I think Android is fine for some people, and I appreciate the ability to build your own firmware image, but there’s no way I’d give up my iPad and iPhone; for me, at least, the killer apps (for music performance and recording) are all on iOS, the hardware is beautiful and functional, and it works seamlessly with the Mac.

Regarding toy phones: “My smartphone is better in every conceivable way than your toy phone,” you would say? Not true! My Fisher Price phone rarely requires charging, has absolutely consistent signal strength, never interrupts me at an inconvenient time, and, best of all, does not require me to pay a monthly service fee to anyone! It’s quite rugged and hard to damage in any meaningful way, and if I lose it I can just buy another one for $8. wink

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@archimedes: Voice activated turn by turn spoken directions out of the box, with very good freeway lane information and an easy to see traffic overlay, with no additional monthly fees or routine syncing is a compelling advantage for pretty much anyone who drives. So are spoken incoming text messages with a variety of free apps.

For *me*, switching to Android a year ago was like switching from a feature phone to iPhone but better. With the switch to iPhone, I was able to consolidate two devices: feature phone and music player (iPod Touch at the time). With the switch to Android, I was able to consolidate two devices: smart phone and GPS. And I got better and quicker locations in heavt WiFi areas. And I got a live traffic view. And I got voice activated navigation (“Navigate to Sun Run Kennels in Costa Mesa”—phone new it was in Newport Beach).

According to the Apple mythos, this usage of a phone makes me a dork grin.

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