Facebook’s mobile Web app is better than its Android app

Have you ever opened up your browser and gone to gmail.com…on your iPhone? Ever felt the urge to load the Instagram website in Chrome, on your Nexus 5?

Web protocols – hello, HTTP – may be central to how we experience mobile software, but mobile browsers have lost the race to hybrid and native apps. Whereas one could conceivably spend an entire workday on a Mac or PC inside Safari or Chrome, the same workflow would be unbearable on an iOS or Android device.

Mobile browsers seem like library stacks – you probably wouldn’t wander into one unless you had to retrieve something, whether a book or a URL. There’s a reason for all those annoying “download our app” banners when you stumble upon some TV station’s mobile website. Apps are better.

If a service offers both a mobile website/Web app and an app that can be downloaded from an app store, I just about always go for the latter. Its hybrid/native app – i.e., the one from the App Store and Google Play that has its own springboard icon and takes up the full screen when launched – is almost certainly faster and definitely more immersive.

Everything from Yelp to various Reddit clients are much better than their corresponding mobile Web experiences. On Android, the incentive to “go native” is even greater since some links can be opened in apps rather than Chrome (e.g., click a URL that goes to Google+ and opt to open up the Google+ Android app rather than the website).

But there seems to be at least one big blue exception to the normal Web versus hybrid/native app rule.

Facebook’s mobile apps, especially for Android, have always been a mess. The early versions were just Facebook.com repackaged with multiple hamburger buttons. While the visual style has gotten flatter with the years and the app has been rebuilt with native code, it’s still got a lot of flaws:

  1. It’s a big battery drain. Deleting Facebook alone is probably the best generalist advice for saving battery on Android other than just keeping the screen off all the time.
  2. It’s inefficient. Photos can take forever to load on even modest network connections, with performance that lags behind even bandwidth-intensive apps such as Netflix.
  3. It’s inconvenient. The recent separation of Facebook Messenger means that Facebook is not one but increasingly many apps taking up space and battery on your phone.

Facebook’s Android app is what happens when the immovable object of a massively popular PC-era app means the unstoppable force of mobile app usage. It manages to hold onto all the legacy features – post filtering, sponsored posts, tons of menus – while taking chic 2010s aesthetic cues. The result is something that is at best a mercifully unobtrusive and at worst crashy and unusable.

There’s plenty of irony about Facebook’s operations, including its fundamental devotion of massive computer science expertise to the art of ad-clicking. With app design in particular, it’s amazing that the lowest-risk way to use Facebook on Android in 2014 is via Chrome.

The Facebook Web app, especially on a big screen Android phone, has several advantages over its cousin:

  1. First, it leaves you alone. There are no push notifications, though you can still check your notifications and your messages through the familiar row of icons at the top. Once you leave the site, you’re basically out of Facebook’s world.
  2. Facebook Messenger? It’s right there in that same row and it actively updates with new messages without requiring a page refresh.
  3. On middling Internet connections, it seems to load media better than its Android counterpart. I’ve seen big rows of gray boxes in the place of photos on the Android app, whereas the website on the same network is fine.

Granted, going to Facebook.com on an LTE-equipped phone feels like bringing modern hardware back to 2006. But in every way it feels like the healthiest choice for the phone and for my own sanity.

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