Facebook: bet on HTML5 a 'big mistake'

Speaking at Disrupt, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to major mistakes regarding the company's mobile strategy, including its decision to bet so heavily on HTML5 regarding clients for iOS and Android.

In the video, which can be seen in full on TechCrunch (the relevant section on mobile starting at around the 11-minute mark), Zuckerberg spoke about some of the big mistakes he thought the company had made. "When I'm introspective about the last few years, I think that the biggest mistake we made as a company is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native, because it just wasn't there," he said.

Zuckerberg maintained that he didn't think HTML5 was bad, and said he's really excited about it in the long term. He also added that more people use mobile-web Facebook on a daily basis than the Android and iOS clients combined. But he noted that when the company built its internal framework, Faceweb, it intended to work with its infrastructure that enabled new code to be pushed daily, and avoid dealing with App Store submission. He said the company thought it could build code on the stack it had and translate that into mobile development. "We were just never able to get the quality that we wanted," he revealed, adding that it took eight months to build Faceweb and another four to realise it wasn't working, at which point the company had to start over with native apps.

On the U-turn, Zuckerberg reckoned Facebook had "burnt two years", and said: "That's really painful. I think that probably we will look back on [this] saying that it's one of the biggest mistakes, if not the biggest strategic mistake that we've made. […] Good enough is not good enough […] and the only way we're going to get that way is by going native."

Facebook's real mistake

Developers weren't convinced by Zuckerberg's reasoning. On Twitter, UX expert Aral Balkan said he'd predicted Zuckerberg would blame HTML5 rather than admit to "abusing HTML to make native apps". He added: "Now tell me these bastardised hybrid apps aren't hurting the perception of web technologies."

Blogger and founder of Scribblar Stefan Richter also suggested looking at the bigger picture: "Facebook's stock has lost a lot of value since the IPO, yet mobile is hailed as the way forward regarding monetisation. A failing mobile strategy is therefore bad for Facebook, and there's pressure to explain the 'why'." Like Balkan, Richter said Zuckerberg pointed the finger at technology, but reckoned "ignoring mobile for far too long was the company's biggest mistake". He also thought that Facebook's experience doesn't necessarily mean HTML5 is not up to the job, just that it's not up to this particular job: "Others, including the FT, have built HTML5 apps that work really well. Facebook should stop blaming technology – the company should blame itself."

Savory co-founder Roger Black told us that Facebook is also something of a unique case on the web. "The scale of Facebook, combined with the tininess of the individual communications, is a stretch most publishers will never have to make. Zuckerberg can afford to do both [native and HTML5]. Most publishers facing customers with HTML, iOS, various Android forks, WP8 and print can't manage all the updates everywhere. But they have to be everywhere to reach all their potential readers," he said. "For publishers, their content is simple enough to publish in HTML, with responsive CSS like Treesaver, and then build hybrid apps that wrap around a browser. They'll still have painful updates when OS versions morph, but that's less painful than rebuilding a dozen native apps. The problem for Facebook is all in execution. Nobody cares whether the platform is native or HTML. It's the content that matters."

Zurb partner Jonathan Smiley agreed, and told us "if HTML5 isn't there yet, it's awfully close, and Facebook gave up too easily on it". He argued the stack that apps are built on will be and should be irrelevant, and HTML5's beauty is its cross-device support and scalability. Like Black, he thought Facebook's financial muscle is what's enabling it to jump to other technologies, but added: "They'll be back." However, when that happens, he warned Facebook cannot again let its product stagnate: "The company's problem with Faceweb was it let it sit there, collecting dust while other things passed it by and devices evolved. I don't know that they created expectations they couldn't meet so much as failed to keep up with people's expectations being raised by other experiences and apps."

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