Report: Facebook mobile platform will circumvent Apple's App Store


Facebook is reportedly developing an HTML5-based mobile platform optimized for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone and iPad but designed to circumvent the App Store distribution channel, giving Facebook far greater control over the user experience.

TechCrunch reports the initiative, known internally as Project Spartan, will initially target Apple's mobile Safari browser, but over time will expand to other operating systems, including Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android. The mobile web solution will include a drop-down menu featuring various Facebook and partner applications--clicking an app loads it from the appropriate server, complete with a Facebook wrapper that integrates key social media functions.

More than 80 outside developers are teaming with Facebook on the initiative--collaborators include The Huffington Post and Zynga, with current plans calling for apps to roll out within the next few weeks. The Facebook mobile platform also will integrate the platform's Credits virtual currency solution, enabling developers and publishers to monetize their efforts via premium application sales and in-app purchases. (Facebook declined to comment on Project Spartan, saying it has "nothing to share.")

News of Project Spartan follows hours after TechCrunch first reported Facebook is developing a new iOS-based photo-sharing application in the vein of services such as Instagram or Path. Based on roughly 50 MB of images and project documents obtained by the news site, the app--known internally as either "Hovertown" or "WithPeople"--is built on top of Facebook's social graph, and it appears to exist as a standalone solution. Screenshots indicate users will be able to tag friends and locations.

The reports also follow Apple's confirmation that its new iOS 5 operating system update will include deep Twitter integration allowing users to sign in once and then tweet directly from all Twitter-enabled apps--among them Photos, Camera, Safari, YouTube and Maps--with a single tap. Some onlookers expressed surprise that Apple chose to align so closely with Twitter instead of partnering with Facebook.

Facebook does pose a legitimate threat to Apple's mobile dominance: The site now boasts almost 700 million users worldwide, with more than 250 million consumers actively using Facebook's mobile products across all platforms, up from only 65 million a year ago. According to Nielsen Company data published last year, Facebook is also the most popular app on iOS, with 50 percent of users accessing the app within the last 30 days.

At the same time, there are some indications that Facebook's growth is slowing, at least in developed markets. Earlier this week, Inside Facebook reported that Facebook user growth slowed to 1.7 percent in May 2011. Over the last year, Facebook has added an average of 20 million new users each month, but the social media platform welcomed only 11.8 million new additions last month, down from 13.9 million in April. The U.S. had 149.4 million active Facebook users at the end of May compared to 155.2 million at the beginning of the month, its first decline in the last year.

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