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Internet.org looks to 'Facebook for Every Phone'

How Facebook could benefit greatly from its Internet.org initiative.

By , Network World
September 17, 2013 03:30 PM ET

Network World - The companies behind Internet.org, the organization formed by Facebook, Qualcomm and several others to bring the Internet to areas that still don't have it, released a document (PDF) yesterday detailing some of their plans for the initiative. One section stands out in particular, if only for its title – Facebook for Every Phone.

Other parts of the document involve advice for data center infrastructure (based on Facebook’s Open Compute Project), mobile app efficiency, and contributions from Qualcomm and Ericsson. It all follows Internet.org’s plan to increase the efficiency of delivering data to users by 100 times in the next decade, primarily by reducing both the costs of delivering data and the amount of data that mobile apps use.

Based on Snaptu, which Facebook acquired when it bought the Israeli company of the same name in 2011, Facebook for Every Phone is an app that brings a scaled-down version of Facebook to feature phones. It was Facebook’s first step into the global mobile market, and it paid off quickly, at least in terms of users. In July, the company announced that the program added 100 million new users in the two years that it was available. That number is remarkable when considering that Facebook boasts an estimated 819 million monthly mobile users.

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The project is clearly part of Facebook’s long-term strategy. Both The New York Times and USA Today have reported that Facebook has made little-to-no money selling ads through Facebook for Every Phone. The app didn’t even have ad space until this July. But in certain emerging markets, which eMarketer identified specifically as India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, and Vietnam, Facebook is considered responsible for connecting people to the Internet.

“In a lot of foreign markets, people think that the Internet is Facebook,” Clark Fredricksen, a vice president at eMarketer, told The New York Times in a July interview.

How it works

A lot of vendors make a lot of feature phones, so Facebook incorporated a “gateway,” which “creates an abstraction of a ‘canonical device’ on top of which the application logic is being built,” according to the document. This ensures Facebook for Every Phone lived up to its name and works with the more than 3,000 models of feature phones that access it today. Facebook also handles most high-impact decisions and processes for the app on the server side, enabling the company to fix bugs remotely without requiring users to upgrade.

From there, Facebook for Every Phone incorporates several tactics to reduce the amount of data sent to feature phones located in low-connectivity areas. The app’s client/server protocol accommodates 2G network bottlenecks by processing and re-sizing large files, such as images, on the server side before sending them to the device.

A process called “screen diffs” reduces the amount of data sent when users try to access screens that they had viewed earlier. For these, Facebook’s servers only send the updated content to the screens, rather than sending the entire screen every time the user accesses it.

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