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Facebook Will Never Perfect Mobile -- And That's Okay

Constant network and device changes mean Facebook will always have work to do.

Kurt Wagner/ Re/code

In early 2013, a group of Facebook engineers visited Africa to test its mobile app in poor network environments. The results were predictable, and frustrating for Facebook. The app crashed regularly, photos wouldn’t load, and one engineer used his entire data plan simply downloading and updating the app from the app store.

Simply stated: “Our apps basically sucked,” said Jay Parikh, Facebook’s global head of engineering, onstage at the company’s first @Scale engineering conference Monday.

Facebook has since improved its mobile offering dramatically (it even has a blog post about it), and the story about sending engineers to Africa has become a tale of redemption (also in the blog post).

But while Facebook’s mobile offering may be significantly better today than it was even 12 months ago, Parikh doesn’t believe the company, which prides itself on being “mobile-first,” will ever be satisfied.

The reason is mobile is always changing. Networks change. Devices change. And Facebook is tasked with building a product that works for 1.3 billion people regardless of which device or network they’re using. “I don’t think this is ever going to be done,” he said of perfecting Facebook’s mobile offerings. “I don’t think we will ever be happy with it.”

This mindset isn’t unique to Facebook — you’d be hard pressed to find an engineer who says his or her product is perfect — but it does mean that Facebook has plenty left to accomplish. Perfecting its mobile app, or at least getting close, will be important for Facebook on its march to two billion monthly active users.

The majority of those newbies will join from places in the world where the Internet is new (or possibly nonexistent), and it’s also very likely they’ll be joining the social network through a mobile device. It’s one of the reasons Facebook is pushing hard on, the company’s initiative to bring wireless Internet access to everyone on the planet. It’s impossible to join Facebook without an Internet connection, after all.

Facebook wants to be ready when new users hit “login” that very first time. That means a product that won’t crash or use up their data plan before they even connect with friends.

Facebook is seeing some quantifiable success from its mobile mission. The social network has over one billion mobile users, and the company recently announced 100 million monthly active users in Africa, meaning half of everyone on the continent with Internet access uses Facebook.

“As more people use Facebook and we continue to grow our engineering team, we have to bring all this together,” said Parikh. “It becomes very natural to slow down. The bigger the organization is, the bigger the product is, the natural tendency in the world is to slow down.”

Facebook has always been good at moving fast, but now it’s ready to live up to its new, less-than-sexy motto unveiled in April: Move fast with stable infra.

It’ll be key to Facebook achieving (near) perfection on mobile.

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