Facebook wants to move faster, at slower speeds. The social network is releasing several new features to allow the app to work more efficiently on smartphones in areas where connection speeds are slow or nonexistent.
The update, which launches Wednesday, is part of a wider push at Facebook to improve the user experience on the mobile app in bandwidth-constrained areas. These initiatives do not solely cater to users in the United States and Canada, who can face slow speeds when commuting underground or in congested football stadiums. They extend to Facebook’s largest-growing markets -- India and Africa -- where fast connections are often absent.
The new bandwidth-saving elements include showing content that was previously downloaded but not viewed. Facebook has had a similar setting, but it did not reshuffle the posts, so users could be looking at the same content every time they open their phone in the subway. Now, anything already viewed does not appear at the top of the News Feed. Another update allows Facebook users to write comments and replies on posts without an internet connection. Prior to Wednesday, Facebook users could post and "like" while offline but could not comment.
Facebook has been investing deeply in the large, fast-growing markets in Asia and Africa. The American-led tech company, staffed with nearly 12,000 employees, has been building up offices in countries like Indonesia, India and Kenya, which are all considered emerging markets. In October, Facebook launched an initiative called "2G Tuesdays," where all employees were encouraged to experience how the social network works within slower speeds.
“One particular focus for our team right now is emerging markets [in Asia and Africa]. People are very rapidly coming online. We need to make sure people in those markets can access Facebook in the same way,” said Chris Marra, a product manager at Facebook who focuses on emerging markets.
Online, On Mobile
Offline functionality has become central for web giants looking to expand in the developing world, as well as retain users who expect the app to work regardless of bandwidth. For instance, Google introduced more offline features to Google Maps in November so users can view and maps and directions without a mobile connection. In August, Snapchat added a “travel mode,” which lets users decide whether the app can pre-download content.
For the last two years, Facebook has been building more offline experiences. In 2013, Facebook added offline posting to the mobile app. In 2014, Facebook users could “like” posts without an Internet connection. Each of those updates let people open the app and take actions that will load after a connection is found.
Currently, if Facebook users open the app when they are without internet or on a slow connection, the Facebook News Feed will first show previously downloaded content the user did not see. Previously, the app did not take into account content that had already been viewed, whether the user hovered over the post, just scrolled past or interacted with it. Additionally, Facebook users can now not only post and “like” while offline but also comment and reply.
Marra and his team of engineers and researchers have been working on the update from Facebook’s India headquarters. Facebook has offices in Hyderabad, Mumbai and New Delhi. About 50 employees there work on the product and research new developments. Facebook has 437.1 million active users in the Asia-Pacific region and 181.4 million users in the Middle East and Africa. That includes only about 12.8 percent of the population in the Middle East and Africa and 10.9 percent of the Asia-Pacific region while nearly half of the United States population has signed on to Facebook.
“I think speed is the main thing that we’re trying to deliver here. That’s what we’ve heard from people as their top complaint,” said Marra. With Wednesday’s update, Facebook “can get you from the homescreen of your phone to fresh stories” no matter what the quality of connection may be.
Beyond showing the most relevant content, some smartphone users, especially those in emerging markets, are concerned about data prices. A 500MB data plan in India costs about 17 hours of minimum wage work in the country, according to a report from Jana, a company that offers phone data through mobile rewards and provides global research insights.
Back at headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Facebook has also prioritized building the service with connectivity in mind. One example is the launch of "2G Tuesdays” that lets any employee set his or her internet connection as slower. Marra’s team led a “2G Bug Bash” in the India office earlier this week, where about 20 employees worked to identify and fix app errors.
An emphasis on speed and connectivity has spread across several departments of Facebook. Last month, Facebook extended Instant Articles to publishers in India and is reportedly building a team in Asia, though Marra says his team does not work on that feature. Facebook says that the Instant Articles feature, launched in May, allows content to load up to 10 times faster.
“We don’t see too many differences in terms of how people are using Facebook. Facebook is a product that lets you communicate with your friends and your family. We’re trying to make the product more reliable,” Marra said.
Yet, aside from connecting with friends on social media, current and potential Facebook users in India actively shop online, especially with mobile devices. Facebook has been betting on that habit in the U.S. market, as it has released a shopping tab on the mobile app and partnered with a few U.S. retailers for e-commerce options.
Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s revenue chief, described e-commerce in India as having “skipped 10 to 15 years” compared to the Western world, having leapfrogged computer-based commerce entirely.
Everson and Facebook’s marketing and advertising teams have also been investing in Asia, specifically in India and many countries in Africa. Facebook recently released a new ad product called "Slideshow" where advertisers can build three to seven photos into a looping ad and have referred to it as a “lightweight video product.”
“We take care that [an ad] renders beautifully no matter what device you’re on,” said Nikila Srinivasan, a product manager for emerging markets.