Facebook has been secretly preparing contingency measures to allow its apps to operate on Android phones without going through Google’s app store, according to people who have been involved in different parts of the strategy.
Facebook’s goal is to be ready in case it has an intractable conflict with Google, which operates the Android mobile operating system, over future rules governing how apps can function on Android.
For years, Facebook has been preparing for the eventuality that it leaves the Google Play app store due to conflicts between the companies. The preparations have included testing how addicted Android phone users are to Facebook apps and making sure they can quickly download them directly from Facebook rather than through Google Play. A more-independent Facebook on Android poses several potential issues for Google.
There are numerous prongs to Facebook’s strategy. It has already developed special software that, when installed, can replicate various functions that Google now provides to Facebook and all other Android app developers. People whose phones have the software could download or update Facebook’s suite of apps without using Google Play, the main Android app store. And they’d potentially be able to download other kinds of apps directly from Facebook. Facebook would be able to send app-related notifications to phones from its servers rather than through Google’s notification system for Android. Facebook could also handle certain app-related payments made by users, which Google currently controls.
As recently as late last year, the company was looking at new ways to get people to manually download Facebook outside of the Google Play store. And Facebook has recently been working on a way to swap out Google Maps for a different mapping service for use within the main Facebook app, should it be forced to stop using Google Maps, according to people who’ve been involved or briefed about such planning.
Facebook’s efforts are a subtle threat to Google. Facebook is the most powerful app developer on Android, where the vast majority of Facebook’s mobile users access its services. Any moves by Facebook to go around Google on Android will be watched closely by other developers whose businesses are potentially competitive with Google yet rely on Google software like Android to distribute their apps to customers—Uber, for instance.
While Facebook has developed special Android software for its own use, the company has contemplated offering services like notifications and in-app payments infrastructure to other app developers (see separate story). It would do so by offering its software to Android phone makers or wireless carriers that currently preload the Facebook app on phones that aren’t controlled by Google. Those phones are mostly in countries such as Russia and developing nations. Such a move would undermine Google’s efforts to reduce the number of open-source Android phones that don’t include Google services like Google search and Google maps.
Facebook executives and some of the people involved in the hedging efforts don’t believe Facebook’s apps will be dropped from Google Play anytime soon. But tensions between the companies have simmered for years. Google’s efforts to maintain control over Android have clashed with Facebook’s desire to have more control over its apps on Android. [For more on that, see this article.] A Facebook spokesman declined to comment for this article.
Google has threatened to drop Facebook from the app store in the past, due to Facebook’s violations of app store rules, according to people who’ve been involved or briefed about such instances. Several years ago, for instance, Facebook included code within its main app that would automatically spawn new apps, such as a “Facebook Phonebook,” or a list of someone’s Facebook contacts and their phone numbers, without requiring a separate download by the user. Facebook quickly ended the practice that Google objected to.
Relations haven’t been exclusively prickly; the Android team has specifically helped Facebook test a new version of its app to make sure it could function normally across numerous Android devices.
Other developers have come into conflict with Google. A year ago, Google briefly dropped Amazon.com’s main shopping app from the Google Play store for violating certain app-store rules by hosting a separate app store within the shopping app.
Meanwhile, Facebook may decide to step away from Google Play on its own if CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes he needs to reassert more control over his apps in order to grow the company’s business. Growing the business requires him to increase the amount of time people spend on Facebook’s smartphone apps.
Facebook already has a key piece of the special Android software installed on tens of millions of Samsung Electronics devices that run Google services but also support Facebook’s Oculus VR technology. When people connect their Samsung phones to a Gear VR headset, the software allows Facebook to download and run an Oculus VR app store that can take payments and install apps on the phone separately from Google’s app store. But a side benefit to the preinstalled software is it acts as a hedge against Google.
If Google removed Facebook from its app store, Facebook could use that software, which is an “installer” that’s named “com.facebook.appmanager,” to distribute and control its own apps on those phones. (The Samsung VR phones are among the most valuable Android devices on the market, in terms of the amount of app and advertising revenue they generate for app developers like Google and Facebook.) Facebook would also try to get people who use non-Samsung phones to download the software.
If Facebook breaks from Google, it will have an opportunity to experiment with new features that aren’t allowed under Google’s current rules. That could include offering its own app store of sorts. Facebook already drives significant app downloads because of its giant app-install ads business. Right now, Facebook sends people to Google Play to handle the downloads and Google gets a 30% cut of any future in-app purchases made by customers of those apps.
If Facebook breaks from Google, it will have an opportunity to experiment with new features that aren’t allowed under Google’s current rules. That could include offering its own app store of sorts.
If it opted out of Google Play, Facebook could complete the downloads itself. It could get a cut of the in-app revenue instead of that money going to Google. The special Facebook software includes the ability to store credit card information and handle payments for any app on a phone or send app-related notifications to the phone, says one person who’s been briefed on it.
King of Preloads
Leaving or being dropped from Google Play could be confusing for people looking to install Facebook on their Android phones. But that could mar Google Play’s image and be a bigger problem for Google than Facebook. The main Facebook app is already preloaded on millions of Android phones, including Samsung’s flagship devices. (Facebook has had trouble tracking the exact amount of preloads because many of them get “paved over” when they’re updated via the Google Play app store.)
The main Facebook app is also pre-installed on phones made by Xiaomi and Huawei (for phones shipped outside of China, where Facebook is blocked), among others. And in markets where wireless carriers have outsized influence, some of them make sure that Facebook apps are preinstalled because the apps drive a lot of data usage and thus more revenue for the carriers. As of a couple of years ago, outside of Western markets like the U.S., Facebook had been widely preloaded on phones sold in Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and others.
But preloading has downsides. First, it requires different legal agreements and other paperwork between Facebook and each partner. The apps that ship with devices are generally not up-to-date. (Facebook pushes changes to its apps on a nearly weekly basis.) And changes made by users to certain Android phone settings may cause older versions of the Facebook apps to live longer on the device, without the ability to be updated. At the end of the day, Facebook may prefer that people download the app on their own.
To that end, Facebook has run all manner of tests to make sure it—and its users—can handle a future in which Facebook isn’t distributed or updated through Google Play. It’s turned off the Facebook app from being on the Google Play store in a certain small country for a week or so. During that time, Facebook notified existing users of its app to click on a Web link to get instructions for how to download an updated version of the app outside of the Google Play store. (Amazon does the same thing to get Android users to download its Prime Instant Video app, which isn’t available on Google Play.) The method had complications but “people did it; it wasn’t disastrous,” says one person with knowledge of the Facebook test.
Facebook has tested the loyalty and patience of Android users by secretly introducing artificial errors that would automatically crash the app for hours at a time, says one person familiar with the one-time experiment. The purpose of the test, which happened several years ago, was to see at what threshold would a person ditch the Facebook app altogether. The company wasn’t able to reach the threshold. “People never stopped coming back,” this person says. Even if the native app continued to not work, the users would open Facebook on their phone’s mobile browser. (Facebook has hundreds of millions of mobile Web users.)
Facebook in the past year has looked at testing a feature that lets people share the Facebook app with their friends using Bluetooth wireless technology so that they don’t have to pay the data costs to download it from a mobile network. In that instance, people would share what’s called a binary APK, or application programming kit, that is more than 30 megabytes in size. Once someone installs the Facebook app that way, Facebook can control it and update it directly rather than rely on the Google Play store.
Facebook also has contingency plans for maps on Android. Facebook currently uses Google Maps within its main app to help people find the location of a business or event, for instance. Should war break out and Google not allow Facebook to use its maps, Facebook is prepared to sub in Nokia’s HERE Maps (which recently was sold to car manufacturers) for Google’s. Facebook’s Boston office, among others, has worked on fine-tuning the HERE software so that it doesn’t cause problems for the Facebook app if Google Maps were to be dropped, says a person briefed on that work.
This article is part of a series on the future of Android. Other articles in the series are at the bottom of this page: With Apple in Mind, Google Seeks Android Chip Partners