This week’s release of a new Facebook Beta app for Windows Phone 8 had enthusiasts of the platform hopping. But as excitement over early access to the app turned to confusion over the new, non-Metro user interface of the app, questions arose. Why would Microsoft (allegedly) make a Facebook app for Windows Phone that looks exactly like the Android and iOS versions of that app? And what does this mean to the future of this platform?
Relax, it’s not all bad news.
A bit of background. Back in late 2010, when Windows Phone 7 launched, the original version of the Facebook app appeared. Despite being published by Microsoft, it was actually created by a third-party developer, Clarity Consulting, which has also done other work for the software giant, including porting the game Contre Jour to HTML 5. As I wrote back in November 2010, “the Facebook app is a poster child for correct Windows Phone app design. It retains the Facebook identity, functionality, and look and feel, sure. But it does so while utilizing key Windows Phone user experience features, creating a truly unique and exceptional mobile experience.”
And so it was, and remains to this day through various updates. The Facebook app for Windows Phone did an amazing job of preserving the Facebook identity while fully embracing the Windows Phone “Metro” design ideals, and this intertwining of the two actually got better over time. The app has always featured a multi-page “pivot” UI, but over time it adopted other Metro features like a standard app bar, and support for live tiles, multiple resolutions, and the phone lock screen.
And then the Facebook Beta for Windows Phone 8 happened. If you’re a long-time user of Windows Phone, the new UI is weird and offbeat, an aside from a Metro-style app bar plopped down at the bottom of the screen, completely ignorant of Microsoft’s design ideals. It features the same right and left swipe gestures to open non-standard menus, instead of pivoting between pages like the old Metro-style app.
But if you’ve used other smart phone platforms like Android or iOS/iPhone, then the UI is immediately recognizable. That’s because this UI is identical to the Facebook app UI on those platforms. There is no meaningful difference between them at all. As I noted on Twitter this week, it’s like the Facebook brand has won out over the Windows Phone brand.
Left to right: Facebook app for Windows Phone, Android, and iOS
There are two interesting factors at work here that need to be discussed.
First, Microsoft made this app. This is not an update to the previous versions of the app, which can all trace their lineage back to the original Clarity Consulting version. This is a new app, made by Microsoft, that looks identical to an Android or iOS app, for some reason, and doesn’t use any of the well-understood and carefully crafted Metro design elements at all.
There is only one conclusion to draw from this, assuming Microsoft didn’t in fact farm this work out to another company: Facebook required Microsoft to do this, and for the reason I expressed on Twitter: The Facebook brand is more important to them than the Windows Phone brand. This is understandable, theoretically, though again I think the first versions of the app did a great job of respecting and promoting both brands.
Second, this change—coupled with some other interesting app releases we’ll see in the coming weeks—tells me that the days of differentiated Windows Phone apps may be coming to an end. Developers are already straining to write apps on two dominant but completely different smart phone platforms—Android and iOS/iPhone—and expecting them to understand the differences between them and a third platform (Windows Phone) or even a fourth (Blackberry 10) is unreasonable.
So the choice is this: We can expect developers to slowly embrace Windows Phone and then only belatedly add or update apps because it is so different from the other platforms. Or we can accept that many developers will simply use cross-platform development tools to ease the transition between these platforms. The result will be more apps and faster updates. But less differentiation
Again, this isn’t entirely a bad thing.
Here’s why: The real differentiator for Windows Phone isn’t the app-specific UIs, it’s the integrated experiences in the OS itself. As I’ve been discussing on recent podcasts, if Apple does as rumored and completely changes the iOS user interface, that won’t impact apps at all: It will only impact the way apps are launched. And on iOS, it’s the OS UI that needs to change the most: it’s terrible. But there’s no reason to change the apps.
On Windows Phone, the situation is reversed. Here, we already have a modern and superior platform and OS user experience. What we don’t have, allegedly, is the apps. So if getting more apps requires us to suck it up and accept some non-standard user experiences in those apps, so be it. They can still support native platform features—live tiles, lock screen, etc.—and still integrate with the underlying system in unique ways.
Look at me taking the glass half full stance.