Facebook launches a quest to be a cross-platform development tool and build bridges among its rivals' vertically integrated ecosystems. Here's how its position differs from Flash.
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Facebook aspires to be the thing that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs despised: a tool for cross-platform development.
"Our goal with Facebook is to build the cross-platform platform," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at his company's F8 developer conference on Wednesday.
Four years ago, when Jobs was still running Apple, he published an open letter to justify his decision to exclude Adobe Flash from iOS devices. Jobs had several good reasons for doing so. Flash was buggy, insecure, power-hungry, and ill-suited to mobile devices.
But Jobs's reasoning was more self-serving in other aspects of his argument. He chided Flash for being a closed system, even as he acknowledged that Apple favors a proprietary approach. Flash's most salient flaw, he said, was that Adobe wanted developers to use Flash to create apps for Apple's mobile devices.
"We know from painful experience that letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in substandard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform," Jobs wrote.
Jobs had reason to fear Flash. Were it not such a technical mess, Flash could have become the preferred development platform for mobile, as it almost became for the Web. And he had reason to want developers to write apps in Objective-C, Apple's chosen language for development. When developers create apps using native Apple technologies, they're adding value to Apple's platform and not to competing platforms.
But Jobs's contention that cross-platform development leads to substandard apps is misleading. Code quality is not a function of platform; it's a function of engineering talent, the number of lines of code, and quality-control regimes. Cross-platform code generally has access to a subset of the full range of native platform APIs, but programmers can still deliver high-quality cross-platform apps that use the APIs available to them. Similarly, cross-platform apps can be beautifully designed, even if native platform APIs offer a greater range of UI possibilities. And writing native code isn't a guarantee of app excellence.
Facebook's bid to become the cross-platform platform represents Realpolitik: Facebook, unlike Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, doesn't have an operating system or a hardware business. Not to mention opportunism: Facebook sees a chance to build bridges among its competitors' vertically integrated ecosystems.
Facebook as a platform differs from Flash in an important way -- the Facebook platform is a data technology rather than a display technology. Developers will still need to create code for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone apps. What Facebook offers is a set of tools for helping apps attract more users, for encouraging those users to engage with apps, and for generating revenue from those users. The company believes it can help developers build, grow, and monetize their apps.
Facebook has been doing so for years, but its focus was on the Web, its offerings were less cohesive, and its platform was less stable. If the company can raise the level of its game by keeping its APIs stable and its servers available, it may achieve the kind of dominance in mobile that Google has on the Web -- data insight that translates into advertising revenue. If developers find that integrating Facebook technology improves app usage, engagement, and revenue with minimal cost and effort, they're likely to favor Facebook over alternative backend services from Apple, Google, or other companies.
In the past, Facebook had a price. While developers saved the effort of rolling their own login system by using Facebook Login in their apps, they ended up alienating users who didn't want to provide data to Facebook as
Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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