In the years since Apple hastened the end of the Flash interface, and along with it Flash’s culture and community of user experience innovators, we have seen the mobile web evolve into so many uniform, joyless experiences that turn users off. This is the admission that Facebook made a couple weeks ago when it launched Facebook Instant Articles - its new proprietary publishing platform that is designed to free publishers from the constraints of the mobile web and to once again create immersive and innovative content that captivates users.
Because Facebook is the King Kong of distribution channels it has often found itself in the unique position of wanting to argue philosophically for an open web, while simultaneously having the most to lose in its failure to deliver a compelling experience. Financially speaking, Facebook exists to serve you ads, and while you wait for pages to load or leave the app entirely due to an amputated attention span, less ads are served. This chasm between low-grade mobile experiences and financial success has resulted in Facebook’s (and others like them) move away from standards-based mobile development, and toward more stable and desirable native Android and iOS experiences. Despite early promises to beach it’s ship on the receding tide of a standardized mobile web, Facebook has time and again drawn the same conclusion that we all have intuitively — users prefer a native app.
So for Facebook’s 745 million daily mobile users, the implications of Facebook Instant Articles are clear. Facebook is where most people go to get their news, and the news experience will be far better with Instant Articles. It will be faster, more intuitive, and more immersive. It will be closer to the experiences that the Flash community was imagining in the pre-Flex days, and closer to the experiences Apple was promising - to both publishers and to consumers - in the early iPad days. Remember Al Gore’s, Our Choice? Facebook Instant Articles will play to our natural lusts for images, videos, and the ability to “tap around” our news versus just reading it.
For publishers, the implications are fairly clear as well. The shared goal of Facebook and its publishers is to create more engagement with the content and thereby to lengthen a user’s session. The format and the tools for accomplishing this will open up new creative opportunities for publishers, and allow them to think outside the constraints of a standard mobile website. The downside for the publisher, however, is managing yet another delivery platform - this one based entirely on what Facebook decides to prioritize. Managing content across devices is already a significant challenge. Now publishers may need to start thinking about managing content across apps and operating systems, as well as the potentially more murky business arrangement between content owners, content distributors, and advertising partners.
And for Facebook, the implications are somewhat less clear. For certain, extending the user session accomplishes an important goal in Facebook’s business model. However, researching, building and maintaining a publishing platform of this potential magnitude seems like a significant step to take in order to achieve the reported 7-second shave off of average load times for news articles - a lag, by-the-way, that is so far technically inexplicable. It’s almost ridiculous to think that this miraculous new speed, along with better designed content, would be the only motivation for Facebook to make such an investment. It makes me think the real business-impacting news is yet to come.
So what about the mobile web? What are the implications for responsive web sites, mobile advertising, and non-native experiences in general? I asked my LinkedIn and Twitter communities to send me examples of mobile websites that they would consider innovative. I received exactly zero examples. It seems clear at this point that the mobile experience will be dominated by native apps, not mobile websites. What Facebook Instant Articles does is potentially hasten that end. Facebook will create an environment where some of the world’s largest publishers - most of whom are already publishing content to their own native apps - will be creating and delivering content using a proprietary set of tools on a proprietary content platform. If users love it, the shift will be significant.
Almost a decade ago, convinced of its monstrosity, Steve Jobs chased Flash up a windmill and burned it alive for running counter to an espoused HTML5/open web ethos. And in the years since, we have indeed seen the mobile experience evolve into fertile ground for innovation and engagement. This ground, however, does not exist in the open web as Jobs imagined, but rather in the walled gardens of so many native mobile applications. Facebook Instant Articles, as a proprietary platform, is a potentially significant land grab of valuable web content and with it, a significant new share of user attention.