Will Facebook Finally Play the Tablet Game?

Fact #1: Facebook’s iPhone app is one of that platform’s all-time most popular applications. Fact #2: Apple’s iPad has been on the market for well over year.

Why, then, does Facebook still have no native app specifically built for the Apple tablet?

Perhaps that’s soon to change. Reports emerged Friday that Facebook is indeed working on an iPad app.

That follows rumors Thursday that the company is working on an HTML 5-based platform code-named “Project Spartan” to distribute Web apps to iDevices.

Facebook has been working on the iPad app for almost a year and will introduce it soon, The New York Times reported.

“I suspect this is a stepping stone for Facebook as they continue to perfect the HTML 5 version of the application,” Yankee Group analyst Dmitriy Molchanov told TechNewsWorld.

“Historically, Facebook has always emphasized HTML 5,” Molchanov elaborated.

The company itself, though, had little to add.

“With regards to a Facebook application for iPad, we have nothing to announce at this time and don’t comment on the development of future products,” Facebook communications manager Jaime Schopflin told TechNewsWorld.

What iPad App, When?

Facebook’s iPad app, which will reportedly be offered at no charge within a few weeks, has gone through several iterations over the past year, the report stated, citing unnamed sources.

It’s apparently in final testing now.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is said to been heavily involved in the process.

The app allegedly features a slick design tailored to the iPad. The Facebook Chat and Groups features were reportedly overhauled for the app.

The application will also let users shoot and upload photos and videos directly from the iPad’s built-in camera to Facebook.

Facebook needs to make sure it gets the iPad app right, if it’s working on one, Yankee’s Molchanov said, because “42 percent of consumers regularly use their tablets to access social networking sites.”

For now, there are three ways users can access Facebook on an iPad: Directly through Safari, by running the site’s iPhone app on the iPad and tolerating either a small or heavily pixelated screen, or via third-party iPad apps that aren’t endorsed by Facebook, such as Friendly.

Getting to Tablets at Last

What took Facebook so long to get its act in gear, seeing that the iPad and the iPad 2 have been selling like hot cakes?

“I’m guessing that Facebook felt like they want to focus on one interface, and that’s the Web application,” Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

“Maybe they just thought this whole app thing is going away, like a lot of people who are betting on HTML 5,” Hilwa speculated. “It’s this whole Web versus apps thing.”

Facebook’s adherence to HTML 5 is well known.

“Last November, at Facebook’s Mobile Event, Eric Tseng, head of Facebook’s mobile efforts, hinted that an HTML 5 version of its site would be the best way for the company to maintain a consistent experience across tablet devices,” Yankee’s Molchanov pointed out.

HTML 5 vs. the App

There could be yet another reason — that Facebook isn’t very good at developing for other platforms than the Web.

“Facebook has had problems developing for multiple platforms before,” Yankee’s Molchanov pointed out. “Its Android app doesn’t begin to offer as much functionality as its iOS app.”

Working with HTML 5 “would help them prevent similar problems on tablets,” Molchanov suggested.

Nevertheless, the app is here to stay, IDC’s Hilwa said.

“No matter how good HTML 5 gets, I don’t think that apps are going away, because the whole notion of an app is a virtual mirror of the physical world,” Hilwa opined.

“We like buying tangible things, and the apps you a strong psychological association with that,” Hilwa explained. “There’s also the element of being able to download and update an app when you want, not when the vendor wants you to.”

The Burgeoning Tablet Market

Could Facebook’s slowness in developing an app for the iPad mirror a bigger picture — that developers as a whole are not keen to create apps for tablets?

Not at all, IDC’s Hilwa said.

“Apps for the iPad have not been slow in coming,” Hilwa stated. “There is the same number proportionately of apps for the iPad as apps for iPhones.”

That’s not the case with Android, however. Though tablets running Android Honeycomb have been on the market for some time, there are relatively few apps available that are designed specifically for full-sized Android tablets. Perhaps developers have not been working as hard on Android tablet apps because these devices do not have enough market share.

“It’s not clear to me that more than 1 million Android tablets in all have been sold, so the market hasn’t been attractive enough to tailor apps specifically for an Android tablet,” Hilwa remarked.

“But I’m sure it’s going to happen. It’s all about units,” Hilwa added.

Developing tablet apps would make sense for Facebook.

“Consumers are not just downloading more applications to their tablets, but they’re also spending more on those applications,” Yankee’s Molchanov said.

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