Whaaaaat? Another one of those “Facebook’s native app is faster” posts – No! You won’t hear this from me.
After I had heard from posts/people that FB would be changing their core mobile architecture for their iOS app from more-or-less hybrid to native again, I had been waiting impatiently for the release. So there it was in the app store, as a big advocate for mobile web, I was almost afraid to launch the new FB native iOS app because I didn’t want it to be faster because I could not comprehend why a company like FB could not have engineers figure out this new HTML5 beast.
Well, I launched the app. It loaded. Fast, faster than I thought, the scrolling wasn’t sluggish anymore. Native development succeeded? Not so fast my friend! I made sure I’d read the FB engineering blog post that explained the architecture behind the latest iOS app they built.
“For areas within the app where we anticipate making changes more often, we will continue to utilize HTML5 code, as we can push updates server side without requiring people to download a new version of the app.”
To me that sounds pretty hybrid, no? – Nobody said hybrid is all webviews and no native components. So why the fuss? They identified the areas where pure HTML5 didn’t work quite well yet, either because of their backend/architecture was not setup to deal with mobile web/HTML5 parts due to maybe bloaded old JS or because certain elements should not be done via webview in general, e.g infinite scrolling that can’t perform well within an iOS webview.
Here, Facebook’s engineering manager Dave Fetterman explained about a year ago FB’s approach to HTML5 and its challenges.
“HTML5 is probably the way that we should have done it. This is the way we get to do it now because HTML5 has changed so much under our feet. The initial attempt at building a hybrid application, there were certain things in HTML5 that weren’t ready yet and we said forget it, we are going to keep moving forward.”
There have been many people out there expressing their views on Facebook and HTML5. Here are some I liked and could agree with.
From the comments block at mashable.com, Esteban Saa writes:
I’ll take this opportunity to write about how Apple in order to maintain control over their app market are creating problems for HTML5. For instance they won’t let use run our web apps at full JS speed stating security issues, which everyone knows is BS. Don’t get me wrong I love Apple products, but practices like these really hurts the evolution of software.
Mobile Marketer interviewed people in the industry and got the following opinions
“Facebook by all accounts, didn’t make mobile its top priority early on,” he said. “As a consequence, they underinvested in their mobile experience (i.e. HTML5) over the past two years. (…) With other companies such as Netflix, LinkedIn, and Instagram, they committed fully and put their best resources on it. Facebook tried to recycle too many things from their desktop technology into HTML5 instead of starting with an approach fully optimized for mobile.”
And finally Tobie was sent from FB to come forward explaining what’s slowing down the Facebook HTML5 app
Scrolling performance ------------------------ I've already started sharing some of it with the W3C WebPerf WG. Will continue bringing it to other relevant WG in the upcoming weeks. This is one of our most important issues. It's typically a problem on the newsfeed and on Timeline which use infinite scrolling (content is prefetched as the user scrolls down the app and appended) and end up containing large amounts of content (both text AND images). Currently, we do all of the scrolling using JS, as other options were not fast enough (because of implementation issues).
My honest opinion based on everything I read on the internet, etc, and my own brain:
- FB underestimated mobile web, hence they didn’t care much about mobile, and did not built their previous hybrid app accordingly with any potential growth of mobile web user base.
- They didn’t care about mobile that much because they didn’t know back then how to monetize it with ads. Of course, Facebook is huge and has so many smart engineers working there but they also have smart product managers, and we all know that FB is not making (much) money with their mobile products because they don’t include ads. I would argue that the focus on mobile has never been that big at Facebook to begin with and hence the apps & mobile web were always low-priority.
- They tried their best with their knowledge back then, now they share their problems and frustration: good for us to learn from their mistakes and make it better.
- Despite Zuckerberg admitting they made a mistake counting on HTML5, they will still continue to focus on mobile web because research says there are still more users accessing Facebook mobile web than Android and iOS together.
- I agree with codefessions.com article “It seems as it was the rethinking of the architecture that fixed everything, not the underlying technology.”
- HTML5 hybrid apps are not the solution for all businesses: Facebook’s infrastructure is unique and needs to handle thousand of requests constantly. Watch the velocity video (around minute one) for more details. It’s a challenge to handle loads like this, not only for mobile, but also desktop.
- Web Apis still need to catch up to deliver native-interaction properly, hence device specific features might still need to be developed natively.
My suggestion for anybody thinking not to develop hybrid mobile web apps now, consider the following thoughts as they might convince you to shift your focus back to building hybrid/HTML5 apps.
- Don’t use bloated JS within your webviews: You don’t need to put all your logic on the client-side, server-side mobile (app) detection and enhancements can give you higher performance as well.
- Draw a comparison to Facebook, are you a dynamic content / social media company or a content-centric company like news broadcaster? Do you rely on complicated SQL queries or do you “just” show simple content results. How many people access your content and what kind of daily/hourly etc? What areas need to perform fast?
- If you need to load content on the fly, e.g. with infinite scrolling, think about moving such component to a native view, not everything has to be a webview! Be smart and honest about it.
- Evaluate each component of your hybrid app and follow the rule if the difference in terms of performance and user experience is way better with native code, use native code. I believe certain elements should be done natively, no doubt, navigation items behave less sluggish than mobile web implementations. However certain static/less dynamic areas with content could be served in a webview.
- Be aware of things HTML5/the browser can’t do or has problems with and try to fix them, e.g. the 300ms onlick delay.
One thing you should always strive for is making your product better and faster, no matter what you choose to use, HTML5 or a native codebase.