Facebook Seeks Failure by Challenging Apple’s App Store

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.


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.