In less than six months from now, Facebook Lite will officially complete five years of its launch, however the fifth anniversary of its debut is far closer. Facebook first piloted the app in eight countries in January 2015 before officially launching it over four months later and expanding its availability to a few more markets. The app didn't reach India until late June. Although this little (literally) app from Facebook doesn't get talked about a lot, it has played a significant role in making Facebook a big part of people's lives in developing and under-developed countries around the world.
Released keeping in mind, the Menlo Park, California-based company's mantra of “leave no one behind”, Facebook Lite brings a feature-rich Facebook experience to users who otherwise might not be able to use the network, especially those whose primary device to access the Web is a low-end smartphone. But as Facebook Lite and the smartphone market matures, let us take a look at how the app is changing to keep itself relevant.
Introduced for select Asian markets on June 5, 2015, Facebook Lite was originally meant to make sure that Facebook had an app that worked on literally every Android phone and not just worked, “worked well”. Also, it was supposed to be small and required less data to function. The Facebook Lite team was successful in achieving that. The original version of Facebook Lite for Android was less than 1MB in size and it included Facebook's core experiences like News Feed, status updates, photos, notifications, and more.
“Back then [at the time of Facebook Lite's original launch], we were really focussed on the broad, what's the biggest group and how do we make sure we leave no one behind. Which was like our number one thing – leave no one behind,” Tzach Hadar, director of product management at Facebook, told Gadgets 360 at the company's Engineering Hub in Tel Aviv.
This strategy of targeting the broadest possible set of consumers helped the company and Facebook Lite manage to reach 100 million active monthly users in just nine months of launch, making it the fastest Facebook app to reach the 100-million mark.
Facebook Lite has come a long way since then. It is no longer just available for Android and its iOS version completed one-year of existence a couple of months ago. A version of the app is also available for KaiOS that doesn't carry the Lite moniker but is essentially the same app built on Java by the Facebook Lite team. For the uninitiated, KaiOS is the operating system used by JioPhone, a smart feature phone from Reliance Jio in India.
In these five years (almost) of its existence, Facebook Lite has grown and matured with the smartphone market. As data became cheaper and smartphones became more powerful, the Facebook Lite team has tried to include more and more features to the app, so that the Lite version users don't have to feel second class to the main Facebook app.
“We believe apps for emerging markets, lite apps, apps for people with data cost constraints, apps for people with low-end devices, these shouldn't provide a lame experience,” said Yuval Kesten, director of engineering, Facebook Lite. “These should provide an optimised experience, a tailored experience, an awesome experience, and not a lame experience just because you happen to be on a poor network or poor device.”
In the same bid, over the years, Facebook Lite has added features like reactions, stories, marketplace, and most recently – Facebook Live support. The features like live video support, something that until a few years ago would have been pretty much impossible to bring to Facebook Lite because of the size constraints, have been possible because of the app's modular approach that allows it to download features and enhancements based on user's needs.
The company had introduced Facebook Live support in the Lite app a few months ago. It is not a feature majority of Facebook Lite app users would need but for those who want it will get it seamlessly as Facebook will download a “live video” module to their phone the first time they try to use the feature. So, with such an approach, Live Video module only becomes available to those who need or want it, others don't have to spend their data or onboard storage for an unnecessary feature.
“I think today the thing is more about how do we make sure that we are not holding anybody back and we are giving them the higher-end experience where they need it without surprising [users] - so it's not like one day it is going to be all high-end, but if you are always on Wi-Fi or if your Internet is very cheap, good, we will give you a better experience,” Hadar explained.
As core features take precedence and app size continues to a big obstacle, the Lite team has avoided in adding creative tools to the app as they tend to more space-intensive, however, creative tools are going to be one of fronts that the team will be tackling going forward.
“Creative capabilities on Lite, that's one of the gaps. When you are not as limited by space and processing part, you can have advanced camera features and stuff like that. We are behind on these. But that's a space that we will definitely work to improve.”
“There is no reason why you shouldn't have the same creative abilities [as the main Facebook app]. So, we work hard to make sure we don't hurt the “leave no one behind” [mantra] but we are able to introduce this,” Hadar revealed.
Even with the improvements in connectivity, smartphones, and data cost, Facebook doesn't see any decrease in the demand for Facebook Lite any time soon. The company believes the reasons why people use Facebook Lite may have become different, but they are still using it. Not only the app is still getting major traction from countries like India, sub-Saharan Africa has emerged as a big market for the app, thanks to sudden Internet growth in the region. So, while the company is no longer sharing any numbers about Facebook Lite usage, it maintains the app's growth hasn't slowed down.
Disclosure: Facebook sponsored the correspondent's flights and hotel for the trip to attend Facebook Lite press day and Systems @Scale event in Tel Aviv, Israel.