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Interview: tailored apps, 5G and the future of Facebook around the world

Interview: tailored apps, 5G and the future of Facebook around the world

AndroidPIT is in Tel Aviv, Israel, this week learning all about how Lite apps are developed to drive growth in emerging markets. To find out more I sat down to speak to Yuval Kesten, Director of Engineering for Facebook Lite. We talked about where the future of app development is heading, how tailored apps are coming our way and how 5G will affect the global app market.

Tailored apps and personalization

One of the most interesting concepts that Yuval told me about was this idea of personalized mobile applications. He calls it 'tailoring on the fly', and the basic premise makes a lot of sense. If all of the logic is done on the server side, you can reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted to the client by cutting stuff that is unnecessary. Why bloat the app with features that the user is not even using?

Google talked about this at a previous I/O and the Facebook Lite team have become early adopters of the technology. They are already doing this for things like customizing the languages a user needs on the fly. In the past when you wanted to add Java Android code to your app it had to be delivered with the original APK. Now, Google lets you deliver it whenever you want.

One example Yuval explained to me was that the first time someone tries to broadcast live video on Facebook is actually a pretty good time to download that part of the package. This can be done in the background without you barely noticing. It is all driven by user behavior so that you are almost building your version of the app as you use it.

It's like this Matrix of factors, and it's very different for each country

This kind of tailoring on the fly is especially important in emerging markets where barriers and constraints are often vastly different. In one country you might have cheap data but a very slow connection. Other regions have decent networks but the hardware is expensive, so people are using lower-end devices. Others might have affordable devices but the network is unreliable. "It's like this Matrix of factors, and it's very different for each country," explains Yuval.

In addition to the basic barriers being different, user behavior is also very different around the world. "Some are more excited about sharing and are very open and then you have countries where it takes more for the users to share or like a cool anecdote about a live video or something," said Yuval. In Vietnam, using live video for customer-to-customer selling is very popular. Whereas you might put an ad on Craigslist or eBay when you want to sell your unwanted possessions, but in some parts of the world it's more normal to just post a video.

"We see a lot of different behaviors in different countries and you need to become an expert, to learn more about people, that's why we also go and visit all these countries and talk to people and have local experts we can learn from," Yuval tells me.

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Yuval Kesten, Director of Engineering for Facebook Lite, taking in Tel Aviv / © Facebook

Is this all about to change with the spread of 5G?

As we usher in the era of 5G connectivity, I wanted to know about how the next generation of mobile networking is going to affect the big picture. As some countries move to 5G, is the gap between the developed nations and the emerging markets going to grow wider? If so, does that mean that the gap between Facebook and Facebook Lite is going to expand too?

"I'm not familiar with any features that are being developed at Facebook right now that are reliant on 5G connectivity, but I'm sure there will be because that's how teams operate at Facebook. They see opportunity and potential," says Yuval. It seems unthinkable that all of the big tech companies are not already working on 5G ready products, but what does that mean for those that are left behind?

Facebook can't be just amazing for high-end markets and then ok-ish for the rest of the world

"I think that that's part of the reason why light apps all across the industry but especially for services that a lot of people use, is a very positive trend," says Yuval. "The top end of the market goes up, but then the bottom comes up as well." He used India as an example where networks have dramatically improved in recent years.

Whether or not these advancements in network technology will be advancing at similar speeds remains to be seen, but as the developers of Facebook Lite keep going back to, every market has its own barriers and challenges. The guiding principle remains the same, and Yuval summed it up nicely: "It [Facebook] can't be just you know, amazing for high-end markets and then ok-ish for the rest of the world."

Delivering on that principle is incredibly complex, but I've been impressed with the level of detail and creative problem solving that goes on here in Tel Aviv. Israeli innovation might just be the only way to get the job done!

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