Facebook's Project Spartan: An HTML5 Trojan Horse For Apple

Deep in the Facebook bunker, socially-networked software engineers are cackling evilly about the downfall of Apple's App Store. It's probably not quite like that in reality, but I find the somewhat dry world of tech often benefits from a dash of B-movie style melodrama. If ever anything deserved an ironic chuckle, though, it's the thought that the Cupertino-backed HTML5 could end up – at the hands of Facebook and their "Project Spartan" – presenting the biggest challenge to Apple's mobile software dominance to date. You have to ask yourself, does the world really need another app store, and why am I leaning toward saying yes?

Project Spartan, so the rumors would have us believe, is Facebook's attempt to bypass Apple's software control by using browser-based apps coded up in the increasingly ubiquitous HTML5. Rather than hitting up the App Store on your iPhone or iPad to download the latest Angry Birds clone, photo-sharing app or bodily-noise replicator, you'd visit Facebook's page and pick it from there instead. Facebook would "wrap" the software up with a social-network layer, allowing you not only to share your progress on your wall and suggest titles to other people, but to use Facebook Credits to buy apps in the first place (as well as make in-app purchases).

[aquote]Apple is Facebook's main target, but the Android Market and other app distribution systems are in the firing line[/aquote]

Instead, then, of Apple claiming its 30-percent tithe of the app cost, along with holding developers to its stringent – and occasionally, unexpectedly evolving – rules, they could go via the Facebook route instead. The beautiful, bountiful openness off the web, and 700m Facebook users signed up already. It's not just Apple and the iOS App Store which will be impacted, of course. HTML5 is supported on other mobile browsers, such as on Android, as well as on the desktop. Apple is supposedly Facebook's main target, but make no mistake, the Android Market, Mac App Store and other software distribution systems are all in the firing line.

Just as was asked when the Amazon Appstore for Android launched, do users really want another place to buy apps? Or, as you might suspect at first glance, does it just make things a bit less streamlined and a lot more confusing. What makes Project Spartan potentially different is Facebook's scale and the potential for cross-platform support and synchronization.

Scale is an obvious one. According to the leaks, Facebook is already working with around 80 developers worldwide – including big names like Zynga, the Farmville game people – to launch apps in as little as a few weeks time. Businesses and developers are already clamoring to get their slice of the Facebook pie and access to those 700m members, so the Mark Zuckerberg shouldn't have much trouble encouraging them to sign up to Project Spartan.

[aquote]iOS notifications are fine for a single device, but don't accommodate users with multiple devices[/aquote]

The cross-platform support – if Facebook and developers handle it right – is the reason I'm really excited about Project Spartan, however. iPhone and iPad notifications have (rightly) been lambasted for their janky inefficiency, something which will finally be addressed by iOS 5 and the new Notifications Center. That's fine for a single device, but doesn't attempt to accommodate users with multiple devices.

If you have, say, an iPhone and an iPad, running a Twitter app on each, whenever somebody sends you a new message you're alerted on both. What HTML5 apps – and the bountiful connectivity we now enjoy – could do is synchronize those alert statuses, rather than treat each device as a silo. If I check my @-replies on the iPad, I shouldn't see the same replies flagged up on the iPhone too.

By using HTML5, though, rather than making it platform specific, sync needn't be limited to just iOS. I could check replies on a Honeycomb tablet and not have to dismiss them a second time on my iPod touch; I could leave off tilling the fields of Farmville on my iPad and then instantly pick it up again on the desktop. Why not go one further, though: use HTML5's growing API support for device hardware to tap into the accelerometer, for instance, so software can figure out which gadget you're using at any one time and funnel the alerts there specifically, tailored to suit the scale of the display.

"New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too)" Steve Jobs famously said, though at the time he was lambasting Flash not his own platform. Facebook's "Project Spartan" name seems terribly apt: the Trojan horse of HTML5 paving the way for an attack on Apple from the very inside of its phones and tablets.