Yesterday, when Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage of F8—Facebook’s big development conference—he didn’t announce a big product consumers might care about, like Facebook Paper, or a new, multi-billion-dollar acquisition, like the texting app WhatsApp.
Instead, he announced a series of small tweaks and developer tools that could change the way users play with apps, share content, and hop from screen to screen. It was a revealing look into a deeper strategy: Facebook wants to knock down the walls separating our phones and desktops, and our apps and webpages. In removing the everyday friction of digital experiences, the social media giant is positioning itself as an essential, unbiased mortar within disjointed digital experiences dominated by Apple and Google. Here are two ways Facebook is doing it already.
Send to Mobile
Your desktop is still a separate experience from your mobile phone. It leads to countless inconveniences like, if you find a link on your phone, how do you share it to your desktop? Most people are forced to copy, paste, and email it. And the same goes for finding a new app you’d like to try.
Send to Mobile is Facebook’s solution. For any site that uses a Facebook login, Send to Mobile allows users to text message themselves a link to an app. So if you sign up for Spotify on your laptop, Send to Mobile can beam your iPhone a convenient link to the App Store to download Spotify.
That’s handy. But truth be told, there’s no reason Send to Mobile would need to stop at apps alone. That core technology could be used to share virtually any piece of information, media, or link via SMS from a desktop to a phone, bridging the divide between our pockets our desktops.
Each app on your phone lives its entire life in ignorance of all the other apps. Yelp doesn’t cross reference Groupon for deals on your favorite four-star sushi restaurant. It’s up to the user to multitask, copy and pasting content, double clicking Home buttons, sliding through screens, to make this magic happen.
Facebook’s solution is a few lines of free, open-source code you can add to any app for Android or iOS platforms, "deep linking" one app to another. They’re called App Links, and they enable apps to transport users from app to app in much the same way the web uses links to transport users from webpage to webpage. Companies like Hulu and Pinterest have both added some of this linkable-content to their apps (assumably, Hulu lets you link to a specific episode of a show, and Pinterest lets you link to a particular Pinterest post).
App Links are a one-size-fits-all language that can be coded once and work for every platform. And where App Links get interesting for Facebook (and Facebook users) is that these deep links can take you straight from your Facebook feed to a specific news story or photo within an app rather than a mobile webpage. Then, if you think bigger for a moment, there’s no reason that App Links couldn’t do more, transporting users to extremely specific moments in highly interactive apps—like the apex boss fight of a video game, or a live feed through an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset—rather than linking you to just news stories.
The Next Facebook Is A Better Web
Already, we're seeing approaches like responsive design rising to connect these experiences. But there are cracks in the infrastructure—how does an app interact with a webpage? How do you bring your identity from one app to another? In this realm, companies like Apple and Google often have little incentive to work together. After all, Apple wants you buying Apple products. And Google wants you buying Google products.
In this climate, Facebook has seemingly spotted an opportunity to step in as an impartial mediator of interfaces, patching the holes between mobile devices and desktops, apps and websites. It's uniquely poised to do so. Facebook already has access to our personal information. As uncomfortable as it makes us sometimes, that access is why the company is able to whisk us around different apps and devices very well.
If we learned one thing at F8, it’s that the future of Facebook isn’t just one Facebook app or even many Facebook apps; it’s a company that acts like glue, melding the disparate parts of our identity and our conversations as we traverse the increasingly complicated digital ether we call the Internet.