Facebook's effort to make the world "more open and connected," as CEO Mark Zuckerberg once put it, has reached the world of apps, which remain largely isolated from one another.
Unlike websites, which by virtue of the Web's open architecture can be connected to one another via hypertext links, mobile apps evolved in a way that keeps them separate from each other. Mobile apps can present Web pages from within internal windows known as WebViews, and they can present links that launch other apps using what's known as a custom URL scheme.
But these mechanisms don't always provide the best user experience. Simply linking to a website may present challenges for users if the site design has not been optimized for mobile devices. For example, if the website requires a significant amount of typed input -- appropriate for desktop usage but not for mobile -- users may be unwilling to use the page. And launching an app using a custom URL scheme doesn't take the user far enough into the app.
In April, at its F8 developer conference, Facebook introduced App Links, an open source system for creating links between apps. App Links extend custom URL schemes so the URL can point to specific app content. In the past four months, hundreds of apps have implemented the technology, creating more than 3 billion unique App Links in the process, the company said on Thursday. Apps utilizing the links include Airbnb, Hulu, Mailbox, Spotify, and Vimeo, among others.
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At a Facebook media event in San Francisco, Facebook product manager Vijay Shankar explained that the company made App Links available to make mobile apps more engaging. Every week on Facebook, users click more than 2.4 billion Facebook Newsfeed links on iOS and Android devices, so Facebook and app makers have a strong incentive to make sure the link experience sustains user engagement and minimizes potential frustrations.
Engagement matters to Facebook because it affects ad performance. Just like links on the Web, links in apps matter for advertising. "The plumbing that we set up with App Links can also be used for you to run ads," said Shankar.
Of course, app makers can present ads using Web technology, but using App Links simplifies the delivery of native ads -- ads that masquerade as noncommercial content.
Offering e-commerce site Fancy as an example, Shankar says there's enough data to show that native ads on Fancy would produce better results than mobile Web ads. "[Site visitors] are logged in, there are fewer tabs, it's a much better user experience," he said. "So everything that we're doing here as part of the App Links setup can [help Fancy] run more engaging ads."
The utility of App Links for advertising explains the remainder of Facebook's announcement on Thursday: App Links Analytics. Facebook has partnered with its Parse subsidiary and Mixpanel to offer a way for developers to assess their App Links traffic and to track App Links events. Because App Links is an open protocol, developers also have the option of building their own analytics system to track App Link usage.
App Links, however, face an adoption challenge. In order for a link to lead to an app, the publisher of the link -- in an app or on a website -- needs to have built the link with the appropriate metadata, and the publisher of the app needs to have integrated App Links support. The adoption of App Links by hundreds of developers after four months represents a start, though more developer interest is probably necessary. Facebook, which publishes massive numbers of links, can help the process along. Other players in the industry have not been so cooperative. Neither Apple nor Google have endorsed the technology, though that doesn't stop app makers from including App Links in iOS and Android apps.
On a related note, Facebook said App Links now works in Windows 8 apps and universal Windows apps.
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