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Drums of War Pound as Facebook Musters Spartan App Army

Drums of War Pound as Facebook Musters Spartan App Army

Facebook is reportedly working on a project that would provide iPhone users with an array of rich Web-based applications, none of which are under the control of Apple's App Store. Web-based apps were the only kind of applications available to the iPhone's very first users; since then they've been edged out by native apps from the App Store. However, the Web has changed, and better apps can now run through a browser.

By Richard Adhikari
06/16/11 11:53 AM PT

Facebook is working on an HTML 5-based platform code-named "Project Spartan" that will seek to distribute apps to iDevices, TechCrunch has reported.

The project purportedly has about 80 outside developers, including people from Zynga and Huffington Post, creating a variety of apps for the upcoming platform.

The apps are reportedly scheduled to be rolled out in the next few weeks.

If the reports are correct, Facebook may be seeking to dominate the mobile app space.

"We've been waiting for Facebook to do this for a while," Josh Martin, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld. "They've been talking about it for a couple of years."

Facebook's planned incursion into the iOS app space, if it does come about, could lead to a turf war with Apple, suggested Neil Strother, practice director for mobile at ABI Research.

"If it's a threat to Apple, then Apple might counteract it somehow," Strother told TechNewsWorld.

Facebook, Zynga and the Huffington Post did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Speculation on Spartan's Workings

Users will reportedly be able to load up the mobile Web version of Facebook and see a drop-down menu for apps.

Clicking on an app will load it and launch a Facebook \u201cwrapper\u201d to surround the app. This will give the app some Facebook functionality and let the consumer use some Facebook features such as Credits.

This will let developers sell apps and offer in-app purchases.

Facebook Credits are a virtual currency the social network's members can use to purchase virtual goods in games and apps on its platform.

The Spartan platform won't offer access to all the features of iOS because of the limitations of HTML 5, but this won't really matter, Strategy Analytics' Martin stated.

"Facebook doesn't necessarily need access to, for example, the accelerometer or gyroscope, so even though those APIs aren't available through HTML 5, that won't affect it," Martin explained.

While actual details of the platform's workings aren't clear yet, Facebook's goal in working on it is fairly obvious.

"It's all about trying to engage consumers," ABI's Strother said.

Back to the Web

The Spartan platform might signal the return of Web apps to iOS.

Since the iPhone was limited to Web apps before the iTunes App Store was launched in 2008, does this signal a return to the past?

Not necessarily.

"HTML 5 offers more functionalities today than standard Web apps did when the iPhone first came out, and Web standards are more developed today," Strategy Analytics' Martin pointed out.

Further, Google is betting big on Web apps with Chrome and the Chromebook netbook.

Apple has a Web apps page up on its site, as well.

Possible Issues for App Devs

With its hundreds of millions of users, Facebook is well positioned to take on the iTunes App Store as a distribution mechanism for iOS apps.

"Facebook is the one company that can do this and pull it off because it has the customer base," Strategy Analytics' Martin said.

However, app devs who use Spartan -- when and if that platform is launched -- may end up having to cope with a new set of issues.

"HTML 5 will open up a host of new problems for application developers to work with," Martin warned. "The iTunes App Store is a combination of a discovery tool, a distribution outlet, and payment mechanism," and Facebook will need to be able to match that, he said.

This could get interesting.

"Facebook hasn't knocked anyone's socks off in the mobile world," Martin remarked. "Most of the time, it's following the trends set by other companies like Groupon and FourSquare. Its apps aren't very good, so there's a pretty strong ecosystem of third-party app developers that have sprung up around it."

Street Fight!

If Facebook launches the Spartan platform successfully, it might find Apple's hands on its throat.

"If there's anything competitive involved, Apple will be out there swinging, ABI's Strother said.

"It sounds like we'll see a good street fight, and in Silicon Valley, that means giants battling it out," he added.

There's no telling who has the better chance of winning.

"It's all about trying to engage consumers," Strother said. "Both companies are very good at this and we'll have to wait and see."


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