The Facebook App Phone

23 October 2015

I tweeted last night that Apple’s resource investment into making the iOS 9 battery investment was worth it solely for the purpose of getting Facebook to improve the efficiency of its iOS app. I think some people took it as a joke, but I meant it seriously.

Changes to how the Facebook app works can effectively be treated as system-level changes because the reach of the app is almost the same as the OS itself. Unlike the Google Play Store, the App Store doesn’t disclose numbers on app installs but Facebook is always high in the top free chart. Multiple analytics companies say Facebook is the #1 downloaded iPhone app of all time.

Having that position of power is interesting scenario for the phone makers. Apple must have been aware of the problems with the Facebook app and it must have annoyed the people in charge of iPhone power-management that a big proportion of their problems are actually accountable to a third-party company they don’t control.

Foundation and UIKit already include hundreds of conditionals to keep the pool of very-popular apps working well so I don’t think its a case of Apple not paying attention, although — granted — these special-case code bits are mostly focused on stopping crashes with popular apps on new version of iOS, not battery efficiency per se. I don’t know what relationship Apple and Facebook have in regard to their iOS apps but it seems like Apple would want as good a relationship as possible for the largest app vendor on iPhone and iPad.

I guess Google has similar connections with Facebook for its Android app; I assume Facebook is the most popular third-party app on Android too. For Microsoft, the significance of Facebook is a big problem because until very recently Facebook showed no interest in making an app for Windows Phone at all. Due to the insane popularity of the social network, Windows Phone suffers a lot without a first-party client.

Microsoft’s solution here is interesting — they have come to an arrangement with Facebook to make an app on their behalf. The official Facebook app for Windows Phone is published by Microsoft. Facebook is so important to a platform that Microsoft uses its engineering resources to write a fully-featured Facebook app for Windows Phone. Its such a socially ingrained thing that the lack of Facebook is a platform deficiency, its existence is more important than most OS features are.

Now, Apple isn’t in the unfortunate position where Facebook can straight up refuse to make an app. There is some give and take, there’s no way Facebook could forgo the users of 500 million iOS devices. This ensure Apple retains power to an extent even if Facebook has a stranglehold that few other developers can exploit. Top games are replaceable. If Apple banned Clash of Clans one day, a million clones would fill the gap. The same isn’t true for Facebook because that’s where your friends are. If you couldn’t access Facebook on iPhone, people would stop using iPhones.

How far could Facebook go before Apple felt the tradeoff was worth it? My guess is that if Facebook started doing something nefarious, Apple would cut it off indirectly with a future software update rather than flat ban the Facebook app. Perhaps, there would be terse discussions in quiet rooms. This mirrors what happened with the Twitter app. Twitter was found to be tracking what apps users had installed by looking up a dictionary of URL schemes. Apple didn’t pull Twitter (despite having sufficient grounds to do so) but it indirectly resolved the problem by changing URL scheme lookup permissions in iOS 9 to prevent any app in the store from doing it going forward. I don’t really have a definitive point, I am simply intrigued by the balance of power. And its topical because of the Facebook battery drain palaver.