Facebook finally held its f8 developers conference this week after a multi-year hiatus. Unlike previous events, the focus wasn't on any major product announcements, but more on developers and the mobile Facebook ecosystem. One of the most talked about announcements is App Links, which is Facebook's attempt to enable mobile apps to link to one another, essentially making the mobile app ecosystem more like the web itself. Unfortunately, there seem to be some issues with that.
Are Facebook App Links the future of mobile app connectivity as the company seems to think or is this a bad idea? Let us know what you think in the comments.
During f8's opening keynote, Mark Zuckerberg made a point of positioning Facebook as a ubiquitous element to the larger mobile ecosystem, spreading across operating systems like iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Its reach is indeed widespread, and is certainly felt heavily throughout all of these, so it's not an unfair way of looking at things, especially when you take into account the breadth of Facebook. The company reported 1.28 billion monthly active users last week, with 1.01 billion of them as mobile monthly active users. Suffice it to say, Zuck has a point about that.
With App links (among other things) Facebook seems to want to provide the fabric (or the spider silk, if you will) of what we'll refer to as the app web.
Just as search engines like Google are starting to treat deep links within apps as web pages from mobile search, Facebook wants apps to treat each other as such, enabling them to link to content within others. That's what App Links is all about.
"Right now, linking on mobile is a lot more frustrating and complicated than it is on the web," Facebook explains. "There isn’t an easy, consistent way to control what happens when someone clicks on your content in mobile, which makes it difficult to provide the best experience for your users. It’s also hard to find out when—and how—to send people out of your app and directly into another. We built App Links to help with that."
The concept sounds pretty good in theory, but is Facebook's implementation the way to go? The App Links initiative has only been around for days, but people are scrutinizing it, and finding flaws.
Kevin Marks, who was VP of Web Services at BT, Principal Engineer at Technorati, has held positions at Apple, the BBC, and Salesforce, and is one of the founders of Microformats, shared a couple videos on YouTube criticizing what Facebook is doing while demonstrating some issues. They're titled "Facebook App Links Break the Web".
Marks says in the first video, "What they're doing is getting in between links on the web. For example, if I click on this link inside the Facebook app on my phone, instead of going to Medium, where it's linking to, it actually takes me to the app store, and tells me to download Twitter, which is already downloaded. I'm not sure how this is going wrong, but it does illustrate why letting Facebook resolve links instead of web mechanisms is potentially a bad idea."
That one was on an Android device. The second video demonstrates app links on iOS.
"Using Facebook App Links on iOS, if I click on a link to Medium with Medium installed, it takes me to an embedded webpage via t.co because it was sent from Twitter, and it shows me the Medium page, and it works, but at the bottom, it says, 'Open in the Twitter app,' which is kind of weird. If I click 'open,' it opens Medium, which I have to sign into with Twitter...so I'm not sure that was better than clicking on the link to be honest. I'm not sure why Facebook thinks Medium is Twitter, but it's clearly a problem."
Luckily Facebook has presented App Links as an open standard, so it's not just a proprietary offering putting this app web into the hands of one all powerful company. How widely adopted this standard becomes remains to be seen, but Facebook did announce a number of big partners from the get go: Quip, Spotify, Movietickets, Mixcloud, Redfin, Mailbox, Pinterest, iHeartradio, Vimeo, EyeEm, Wattpad, Endomondo, Venmo, Houzz, Tumblr, Hulu, Flixster, Goodreads, DailyMotion, Flickr, Songkick, Fancy, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Vevo.
"Publishing App Link metadata is as simple as adding a few lines to the <head> tag in the HTML for your content," Facebook says. "Apps that link to your content can then use this metadata to deep-link into your app, take users to an app store to download the app, or take them directly to the web to view the content. This allows developers to provide the best possible experience for their users when linking to their content."
"App Links are specified using the tags defined in the registry below. Each target platform requires a different set of metadata in order to provide enough context for one app to deep-link into another."
You can find documentation and implementation recommendations here.
"App Links enable you to provide your users an experienced optimized for their device when viewing content," the company says. "You should optimize the display of links that have App Link metadata for your app. You may choose to take a user to the native app store when the app is not installed or display the name of the app based upon the App Link metadata for a given link."
Some believe App Links are a very big deal, and are already saying goodbye to browsers. Let's not get carried away. At least not yet. There is certainly some great potential here, but whether or not Facebook's App Links standard becomes a true widely adopted standard remains to be seen. It's obviously incredibly early here, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt with the kinks. They could actually be on to something here. And it's not as if there aren't all kinds of screwed up web links out there.
Jay Yarow makes a pretty good point that a lot of people seem to be ignoring though. How is this going to sit with the platform makers like Google and Apple, both of which have their own developer conferences coming up. Was it smart for Facebook to introduce App Links before we see that these companies are going to do next with their respective mobile platforms?
Apple is about to introduce iOS 8, the latest version of its mobile software, in June. It's possible that Apple has come up with its own native solution to the app-linking problem, and it's possible that it will be added to iOS 8. It's also possible Apple will change the code in iOS 8, thus making Facebook's app-linking solution useless. Either way, Apple does not like people mucking around with its platform, so we're skeptical it's going to let Facebook mess with the functionality of iOS.
Google is also growing more protective of its open-source platform, Android. And if you think Google is going to let Facebook become the Google of mobile, you're nuts. Google is holding its developers conference at the end of June. We wouldn't be shocked to see Google add app linking of its own.
Asked if the company has talked to Apple or Google about this, App Links product manager Vijay Shankar told TheNextWeb, "We haven’t directly spoken to any platform in general. What we’re trying to do is build a solution that works across all platforms and just hope it takes off organically by itself."
If enough apps get on board with App Links (and the launch partner list isn't a bad start), it might not matter what Google or Apple have to say.
As Danny Sullivan pointed out, it looks like you're already going to have to use code from both Google and Facebook if you want your deep linking to work optimally:
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) April 30, 2014
Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference begins June 2nd, and Google I/O starts June 25th.
What do you think? Are App Links the future of mobile app connectivity or is this thing going to fall flat? Share your thoughts in the comments.