Product Engineering // Blog

Native vs. HTML5 Apps: The Facebook Case Study

Faced with a sagging stock, a user base that is quickly moving towards mobile, a decline in advertising revenue and pressure from investors, Facebook is in the midst of a major shift in focus.

Facebook’s new app for iOS: Abandoning HTML5 for Native

Facebook executives say the social network giant is transforming into a “mobile first” company through a variety of programs, the first of which iOS users were able to experience on Thursday with the release of Facebook Version 5.0.

FB Version 5.0 is a strong first step in the right direction, as it transcends the embarrassingly sluggish and buggy FB Version 4.1.1 that received one-star reviews by over half of its users in the app store. The improvement in both speed and functionality is derived from the programming language behind the new app. FB Version 4.1.1 was written in HTML5, whereas FB Version 5.0 is written in Objective-C, the native language for iOS.

Facebook’s decision to build one app to work across all platforms using HTML5 was much better in principal than in practice: “Building any app in HTML5 will put another layer of abstraction between the user and the operating system. The result is generally a sub-standard performance,” said Applico CTO Matt Powers. “Facebook did not take into account how important a true native user experience is, an area where HTML5 falls short.”

Measuring The Difference Between FB Version 4.1.1 and FB Version 5.0

Using Applico performance tools, we were able to analyze log files and compute loading times to compare FB Version 4.1.1 to FB Version 5.0. Tests were computed on an iPhone 4 on the same Wi-Fi network in a controlled environment. The same friends, photo albums, profile, feeds, and number of notifications and messages were used in both cases.

Native App Design Improvements in FB Version 5.0

Below, Applico CTO Matt Powers describes some of the differences in design and functionality between FB Version 4.1.1 and FB Version 5.0. These improvements all point back to the capabilities of a native design over one in HTML 5.

Conclusion

Considering the limitations of HTML 5, there is no question that Facebook’s native app performs at a superior level and provides a higher-quality user experience. For a company whose future rests on its ability to generate revenue in the mobile sector, building a native mobile app was a necessity and proves they are committed to succeeding in mobile. “The application feels fluid, response times have been significantly improved and the application now has the flexibility to add those ‘wow’ factors from a visual standpoint,” said Powers. “The choice to use MQTT as a messaging bus platform for notifications allows the app to react quicker and in real time as opposed to the use of polling mechanisms which provided a disjointed user experience. I only expect the iOS app to get better.”

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