updated 07:25 pm EDT, Mon October 10, 2011
We demo Facebook's iPad app
Arguably one of the more important tablet apps released in recent memory, Facebook for iPad has launched and promises to fill a hole that many have said has existed since the iPad launched in April last year. It's a fundamental break from the earlier iPhone design, however, with new metaphors and some touches specific to the larger screen. We'll find out in a hands-on whether it's worth using over an alternative like Friendly as well as learn how the long-rumored Project Spartan fits in.
Both the iPad and iPhone now have a common concept of a "tray" for much of the more detailed navigation. If you've ever used the Facebook website, it will seem uncannily familiar, as that's largely what it is: a recreation of what you often see for navigation on the web page, just more touch-optimized. We found that a good thing, as it gave an obvious parallel for what users are familiar with on the desktop. The tray is hidden and can be toggled on and off with a button, though we liked the iPad approach the most: you just have to swipe to the right to reveal the tray.
Either approach makes for a very uncluttered look and, importantly, one that gets directly to what most people want: the news feed. Before, you often had to jump in and out of a home screen to get between sections, which slowed just about everything down.
Some of the most common tasks, such as dealing with notifications and chat requests, are in a bar at the top and, on the iPad, appear as pop-over menus. In our view, that's a much smarter approach that lets you deal with a notice quickly. Again, it's more like the web page and will be very recognizable, just much more suited to the mobile arena. We'll add that the iPad version makes good use of landscape for chat, too: tilt on the device's side and your list of chatters appears on the right, just as it would on the web.
Media and location features are generally well integrated, too. Nearby lets you easily find people on the map and also serves as a fairly speedy check-in location for Places on top of the main news feed. Photos and videos are presented in a basic but easy to use gallery, and it's easy to upload from within the app.
What might be most important is the app integration. Facebook apps now have what are known as bookmarks that, in mobile, are context-sensitive. This is where Project Spartan kicks in, although not as broadly as expected. If an app has a native iOS equivalent, it gets bookmarked in the side tray and will launch the native app. If the app exists but isn't installed, it will go to the App Store.
Where does Project Spartan fit in? In some cases, those bookmarks can also appear on the mobile web page, and it will launch HTML5-native versions of those apps when available. In many cases, these provide much of the experience of the web and, as of Tuesday, will even include games that have often depended on Flash or other mobile-hostile code, such as Farmville Express or The Sims Social. The approach, in our limited experience, is proof HTML5 can fill in for more on the web; Facebook explained that it's a better balance than either having to consider limited features or using Flash, which the social network said doesn't work consistently well on Android.
One thing you won't see in native apps linked from the iPad or iPhone, however, is the Facebook Credit system. We believe may explain the roughly four-month delay in releasing the app; Facebook may have wanted to use its Credit system and initially balked when Apple demanded that any payments, even virtual, go through iTunes. Facebook's details mention that Credits are "not allowed" in the native apps. As such, if you have Credits to use in an app, you'll need to visit the website, mobile or otherwise, to go inside.
This aside, we're so far happy with the new Facebook iOS app, most of all for the iPad. It's not a complete revolution, but it presents an uncluttered, fast experience that keeps the disruption to a minimum. The native version is better on a tablet than a desktop, and while Facebook won't profit from in-app purchases in native apps, it's a more holistic experience that reminds users their desktop apps haven't gone away.
And while it's unfortunate that the web apps won't launch in the Facebook app itself, that they exist at all in a fairly simple-to-launch way helps provide a way to check in on crops, Gilt deals, and Flixster movies in a way that wasn't even a realistic option before.