Facebook’s Biggest Mistake

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at TC Disrupt to make his first extended public comments since Facebook‘s troubled IPO earlier this year.  During his comments, “Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook’s mobile strategy relied too much on HTML5, rather than native applications.”

This perspective and openness showed a founder/CEO who was dialed in to the challenges the company has faced on mobile.  It also enabled him to contrast nicely the big improvement $FB has made in shifting to a heavier reliance on ‘going native’ as it pertains mobile platforms.  Shareholders were positive, pushing the stock up 3%–I’d expect both because they realize that Facebook has a mobile strategy and is executing on it, and because they are seeing evidence that Facebook’s leader is a serious, serious guy.  This is goodness–it’s great for Facebook, of course, because as I’ve expressed elsewhere, Facebook needs a great mobile strategy.  More broadly though, it’s good for the whole ecosystem–we should want Facebook to thrive and grow, as it’s continuing momentum has a gravitational pull that helps fuel and balance the broader tech ecosystem.

From a Facebook standpoint, this was really a no-brainer.  Mobile is the future, and  with mobile, the future is arriving a whole lot faster than anyone really thought.  As a result, Facebook really needed its mobile product to be a first class citizen.  That meant it had to, had to, go native.  Not even a choice.

The unfortunate thing, though, is that it probably exposes the lack of robustness in HTML5 and mobile web.  People will now predict that HTML5 was before its time, companies shouldn’t bet on it, etc., etc.

To an extent this is true.  For great mobile-first and mobile-centric experiences, HTML5 involves compromises.  As a developer, you get broad multi-platform distribution, with the cost of a degraded user experience.  This degraded user experience is a big big deal on mobile though.  The iOS and Android platforms in particular have trained users to expect responsive, highly functional apps.  They’ve gotten us used to instant gratification, smooth transitions between screens, etc., and when HTML5 can’t deliver that, the app suffers.  And given how intimate a smartphone app experience is, and given how many apps are competing for a user’s attention, delivering a weak user experience is an unacceptable risk for a developer to take.  Indeed, Facebook’s mobile HTML5 app showed clearly the challenge–users were held hostage to it, and they hated it.  With its new native app, Facebook is seeing better user retention, engagement and usage.  A better app, a better user.

Does this forecast the death of HTML5?  Absolutely not.  HTML5 is coming and its a big wave.  It is also a lot of work.  The  HTML5 evangelists predicting the  death of native apps, were I think over-optimistic.  Not because of their wrong on the technology.  Instead, its more about user training–users will continue to have high demands on mobile experiences, and this will force the transition to take time.

I think this will continue to provide opportunity for a wave of companies working to build the infrastructure, tools, and services that enable the HTML5 wave to become a first-class development platform.  In the gaming space for example, companies such as Game Closure, Artillery, and Spinpunch, are all focused on helping enable the next generation of games and game distribution via the mobile web.

So exciting times for the industry here.  Great to see Facebook getting on track for mobile.  While I’d love to see HTML5 delivering the goods now as a dev platform, I’m not at all surprised that it’s not yet there.  While a big mistake for FB, a recoverable one.  And not a death knell to the power and impact that HTML5 is going to have in the longer term.

 

 

 

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