Apple’s new iPad device lives up to its billing, at least according to the first hands-on reviews coming out today. It’s a streamlined mobile computer that lets people use the web and do many other tasks better than similar devices like laptops and smartphones.
And there are good reasons to think that Facebook will have a version designed for the iPad ready for when the iPad ships on Saturday, even though it already has an extremely popular app available for the iPhone and the iPod touch.
Bringing Facebook to the iPad
Apple and Facebook have complementary goals here (and in general). Apple wants to provide industry-defining devices with operating systems and software to match. In this context, iPad is specifically intended to be for consuming media and for lightweight sharing. Meanwhile, Facebook wants to provide social software as a layer on top of hardware and operating systems, that helps people connect with each other and share more information.
Facebook has shown no interest in providing hardware or device operating system software, while Apple has not made moves to provide a competing social web service. A somewhat common enemy, Google, has also been busy doing both.
More generally, Apple wants as many sexy apps on the iPad as possible, and it has been busy working with third parties to launch 1,000 of them alongside the device.
Facebook wants to be on every device possible. It has made a point of providing its service to work across all sorts of mobile devices, going as far as to introduce an SMS version of the site for users with mobile phones but minimal data services. The company has long played up mobile. Its official mobile stats say 100 million of its 400 million users are on mobile, and are twice as active as its web-only users. “There are more than 200 mobile operators in 60 countries working to deploy and promote Facebook mobile products,” the company says.
So a Facebook iPad app makes sense strategically. If mutual interest wasn’t already obvious enough, Apple demo’ed the Facebook iPhone app in action on the iPad during the announcement presentation in January.
Facebook for iPad Design
It’s the interface opportunities that really make the concept of a Facebook iPad app interesting, though. After all, Apple showed on stage, Facebook could do nothing besides have its iPhone app appear double the size on the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen. Or have people browse to the site from the web.
Who better to ponder new possibilities than Joe Hewitt, the Facebook engineer who built the first few versions of the Facebook iPhone app. He didn’t hold back after seeing the initial announcement in January:
I spent a year and a half attempting to reduce a massive, complex social networking website into a handheld, touch-screen form factor. My goal was initially just to make a mobile companion for the facebook.com mothership, but once I got comfortable with the platform I became convinced it was possible to create a version of Facebook that was actually better than the website! Of all the platforms I’ve developed on in my career, from the desktop to the web, iPhone OS gave me the greatest sense of empowerment, and had the highest ceiling for raising the art of UI design. Except there was one thing keeping me from reaching that ceiling: the screen was too small.
At some point I came to the conclusion that Facebook on iPhone OS could not truly exceed the website until I could adapt it to a screen size closer to a laptop. It needed to support more than one column of information at a time. I couldn’t fit enough tools on the screen to support any kind of advanced creative work. Photos were too small to show off to my far-sighted parents. The web required too much panning and zooming to enjoy reading. Beyond just Facebook, most of the apps I used most on my iPhone also suffered from these limitations, like Google Reader, Instapaper, and all image, video, and text editing tools. The bottom line is, many apps which were cute toys on iPhone can become full-featured power tools on the iPad, making you forget about their desktop/laptop predecessors. We just have to invent them.
Hewitt is no longer working on the iPhone app, but perhaps we’ll see a multi-column interface for Facebook in its iPad app? A specialized photo-viewing interface? Given that we don’t have any concrete information about Facebook’s plans, here’s a few tidbits that jumped out to us from the initial reviews.
From David Pogue, in his bi-polarly effective review, comparing the perspectives that hardcore techies and average users might have of the device:
The iPad is so fast and light, the multitouch screen so bright and responsive, the software so easy to navigate, that it really does qualify as a new category of gadget. Some have suggested that it might make a good goof-proof computer for technophobes, the aged and the young; they’re absolutely right.
And the techies are right about another thing: the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on. For most people, manipulating these digital materials directly by touching them is a completely new experience — and a deeply satisfying one.
Touch could be what makes a Facebook app especially interesting, given how much of the service is designed around simple, brief interactions like browsing photos or commenting on shared links or status updates.
Walt Mossberg had a similar reaction, and mentions using Facebook while in testing (although it’s not clear if he’s talking about the current iPhone app on the iPad, or something more):
If people see the iPad mainly as an extra device to carry around, it will likely have limited appeal. If, however, they see it as a way to replace heavier, bulkier computers much of the time—for Web surfing, email, social-networking, video- and photo-viewing, gaming, music and even some light content creation—it could be a game changer the way Apple’s iPhone has been….
Watching videos, viewing photos, listening to music, reading books and playing games was satisfying and fun. I used the device heavily for Twitter and Facebook.
All this sounds quite promising. For now, Facebook is only saying that “as a practical matter, we don’t comment on rumors or speculation about products we may or may not be working on.”
The Facebook iPhone app is one of the most popular on either Facebook or the Apple App Store app, with a whopping 30.4 million monthly active users and 15.6 million daily active users, according to our AppData service. So a Facebook iPad app would have some catching up to do. But if the iPad proves a winner, you can bet it will.