Facebook today announced the culmination of more than six months of work, a native version of the Facebook app for iOS that's twice as fast. "Up until now we've looked at scale," iOS Product Manager Mick Johnson says, "but we've become aware that while we have a great mobile website, embedding HTML 5 inside an app isn't what people expect." Facebook for iOS 5.0 was built from the ground up using Apple's iOS SDK, and looks nearly identical to the old app, but bundles in very substantial speed improvements as well as an overdue Timeline profile view for iPad. The app update is set to roll out over the next few hours.
"Embedding HTML 5 inside an app isn't what people expect."
In building a native Facebook app for iOS, the company looked at improving three key places, "the app's largest pain points" all relating to speed: launching the app, scrolling through the News Feed, and tapping photos inside the News Feed. "We're twice as fast in all these areas," Johnson says. The new app uses much of the same codebase as the company's recently released Facebook Camera and Facebook Messenger apps, which we're told were released in part to gauge users' reaction to native applications. The new app's photo view takes cues from Facebook Camera, and the app's Messages screen is a clone of the Facebook Messenger app itself. Yet, the new app was built by an entirely separate team, Johnson says. "Going forward, we'll utilize code sharing, as well as some assistance from the other teams," he says. In a blog post today Facebook provided some of the crunchy details about why its native code makes it easier to code a faster app, but still presentes unique challenges when compared to HTML5.
Aside from plentiful speed improvements, Facebook also added a handful of features and tweaks straight from the iOS SDK, like new animations and gestures. One new gesture enables easier one-handed browsing: when you're viewing a photo, you can swipe down on it return to the previous screen. Another new feature is a "New Stories" banner that pops up at the top of your screen while you browse the News Feed. While it's unclear whether the app is checking in the background or streaming in new updates like Tweetbot, the banner ensures you're always seeing the latest updates. It nicely compliments Facebook Messenger's in-app banners for new messages, and shows that Facebook is seemingly dedicated to providing a unique experience on iOS.
While Facebook for iOS is much faster than it was before, the speed comes with one compromise: the company can no longer roll out daily updates to one of its most popular apps. Rapid iteration is one of Facebook's strong suits, and that strength went hand-in-hand with HTML 5, which allowed the company to push server-side updates to all of its apps at will. "We can roll out six versions of a new feature on our mobile website and still leverage that user base," Johnson says, "but the version of our app hitting the App Store today doesn't give us quite that flexibility." However, a few specific places inside the app that Facebook anticipates updating often will remain in HTML 5, and will thus be more adaptable to new types of Stories and other content.
Over time, Facebook intends to give its other apps a similar treatment, though it provided no timeline for doing so. The company rolled out a minor update to its Android app today, but the date of that rollout is merely coincidental. "It's fair to say we'll focus on what we can do best on every platform," Johnson says. A native Facebook iOS app has been arguably the most-wanted app on the planet. It doesn't look much different, but should satisfy the hundreds of millions of users begging for an experience that isn't cripplingly slow.