Facebook Overhauls Its Android App for the Developing World

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Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has overhauled its Android app to optimize it for use in countries where data is expensive and phones have smaller amounts of storage. According to a post on Facebook’s engineering blog, Alex Sourov reports that the app has undergone significant changes over the past year. It now starts up 50 percent faster than it did six months ago, uses 50 percent less data that it did a year ago, and comes in a download that’s 65 percent smaller than it was at the start of this year. Those numbers show that the app’s upgrade isn’t a normal update, with minor fixes or improvements. Instead, it signals a new focus and serious commitment for the social networking giant.

Facebook has been gradually turning its attention to the developing world, in large part because that’s where it still has potential for huge growth. According to TechCrunch, Facebook has 202 million monthly users in the U.S. and Canada, compared to a combined population of about 353 million. The market is relatively saturated, and while Facebook will continue to grow, it doesn’t have room for any more huge growth in North America. But in contrast, there are many areas of Asia, Africa, and South America where many people don’t have Facebook accounts. But they also often don’t have access to fast LTE networks or the high-end smartphones that many of Facebook’s users in its native U.S. use to access the app. Instead, many people in the developing world use lower-end Android smartphones, and slower networks.

Sourov writes that the company wants “Facebook to work for everyone — no matter the region, network condition, or mobile devices.” He describes a trip that product managers and engineers took to a location in Africa to see how the Facebook app would work:

We purchased several different Android handsets to test the latest version of the Facebook app — and the testing process proved to be difficult. The combination of an intermittent, low-bandwidth network connection and a lack of memory space on the devices resulted in slow load times and constant crashes. We even burned through our monthly data plans in 40 minutes.

Sourov explains that the team then worked on fixing the issues to make the app viable for a new market. The app now starts faster, and News Feed stories load more efficiently. Facebook switched its image compression format to WebP from JPG or PNG, reducing the amount of data they used without any perceived difference in the quality. The team optimized the resolution of the images displayed, only loading the extra resolution needed to zoom in if the user decides to zoom in. The team also improved the process of caching and reusing image, optimized the efficiency of processes like loading images, and reduced the size of the app to address the problem of the small disk space that lower-end phones typically have.

The blog post on Facebook’s site says that the changes are ongoing, and will also be expanded to Facebook’s other apps, like Facebook Messenger and Instagram. The overhaul aligns with the company’s growing focus on building its user base and market in the developing world, evident in several of its recent acquisitions. Facebook recently bought Helsinki-based Pryte, a startup that provides app-specific packages of mobile data to users in areas of the world that data is still expensive. Under that model, users could pay specifically to be able to access one app, such as Facebook, instead of buying a general data plan. As Mashable reported, the startup has not yet launched its service publicly, and the company had thirty employees on staff when Facebook bought it.

At the time, the Pryte team wrote that it would help Facebook with another ongoing project, the Internet.org project that Mark Zuckerberg launched last year to (profitably) bring internet access to five billion people. Zuckerberg’s plans for Internet.org and his general mission to “connect the world” also likely includes leveraging the mobile messaging market, particularly in the areas outside of the U.S. where another of Facebook’s recent acquisitions, hugely popular messaging app WhatsApp, sets Facebook up for dominance.

The company’s move to optimize its Android app shows that Facebook is serious about preparing for a market outside of the U.S. and Canada. Because smartphones are becoming less expensive while the cost of data remains high in the developing world, Facebook is judiciously considering how it can makes its service as universally accessible as it can. That way, as other companies are optimizing and rethinking how to configure their apps for slower networks and less-capable phones, Facebook will already have its improved Android app in place and be poised to begin adding users to its social network.

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