Facebook on iPad Leaves Some Room for Fakebooks
Facebook's new app allows iPad users to access their profiles through a touch-friendly interface rather than the social network's own website, which often feels clunky on a touchscreen. Of course, users have long been able to use "Fakebook" apps -- apps not endorsed by Facebook but which provide access to info and features. Facebook's own app is definitely a step up from the Web, but there's still room left for Fakebooks.
The iPad has been on the shelves for about a year and a half, and when it first debuted it seemed only logical that an official Facebook app would be ready within weeks, if not days. The world's most popular social network made the App Store's most popular mobile application with its iPhone version, so how could it pass up making a custom app for iPad?
But months passed, then a year, and still no iPad app. I don't know that it caused anyone a great amount of pain or sorrow. Facebook's main site works through iPad's Safari browser, and several independent development outfits have been quick to submit apps that provide access to a user's account without actually being endorsed by Facebook -- in other words, "Fakebook" apps.
The absence of an official Facebook presence on iPad wasn't a disaster -- it was just kind of weird. Almost ... unsettling. What's the deal, Facebook? You have developers. You know how to design it. You know it would get approval and millions of downloads. What are you waiting for? What's your game? Why you no like iPad? What did Zuckerberg mean when he said iPads aren't mobile devices? What's this I hear about "Spartan?" What the hell are you hiding?!
And then out pops this. Facebook's iPad app went live on Monday.
Beats the Web
For the last few months, I've been using a Fakebook app called "MyPad+," a $2 app that looks like what would happen if Facebook mated with Twitter's native iPad app. I'll use that as a basis of comparison for looking at Facebook's own app.
Step 1, of course, is to sign in using your Facebook login. You then have the option to take a small tour that points out a few features of the new app. For instance, you can send a message or see your notifications without losing your place on your News Feed by touching the speech-bubble icon at the top. Out pops a mini menu that can be scrolled top to bottom.
A search bar is conveniently located on the left -- just swipe the News Feed aside and it's at the top of the column. This control column has lots of handy nav features, actually, and each takes you to a full-screen view of whatever it is you're looking for: News Feed, Messages, Nearby (if you opt to let the app track your location), Events and Friends. Your Groups are listed on this column, as well as your connected apps ("Words With Friends," Yelp, etc.) and access to certain account settings.
Functions like Status, Check In and Photos are located above the News Feed.
Even though the Web version of Facebook technically covered all the network's bases via Safari, it just didn't feel like an iPad app. For example, look at something like Twitter's native iPad app. It built multiple, independently movable panes into its app and made them all react to swipes, pulls and finger-flick scrolls. You don't click on Twitter's app, you touch it.
Although it's not what I'd call a clone of Twitter's app, Facebook's iPad app treats the interface in much the same way. Instead of delicately poking tiny buttons that were designed for a mouse cursor, you can tap nice, fat controls, swish panels side to side, pull down the News Feed to refresh it, and generally treat it like a mobile app is supposed to be treated.
In using Facebook's official iPad app, though, you do lose a measure of functionality. The browser is one example of this. Click on a link someone's posted, and you can visit that site. It even alerts you if the site wants to access your information, presumably for its Facebook Connect feature. Built-in browsers are relatively common, but I don't think I can even call this a "Web browser." It's more like a Web viewer. It'll take you to a page, and it'll let you click links in that page, but if you tap the URL bar at the top, you can't insert a URL of your own. So browsing around the open Web in Facebook's own app is probably not going to happen. If you find a URL you want to share as you do your real browsing, you might just have to copy/paste it in from Safari.
It also appears that you can't change your profile settings from within the app. So if your political views suddenly do a complete 180 on the basis of a friend's insightful comment about Herman Cain, it doesn't look like you can reflect that change directly through this app.
Facebook's iPad app does give you access to your privacy settings, though, and I'm glad that's there. This is one of the things you can't do on MyPad, my Fakebook app of choice. Regardless of which app you use, of course, you can always go to Facebook directly on Safari to get full access to all features. But it's nice to have the most access possible through the mobile app.
Although Facebook trumps MyPad on privacy settings, the Fakebook app does have its strengths. MyPad's built-in browser is a real browser. It doesn't have multiple panes or bookmarking capabilities like Safari, but you can punch in your own URL, find the specific page you're looking for, and share a link on your News Feed with two taps.
The News Feed itself is very similar-looking on both apps. Original posts are displayed with a Comment and Like count below. It might be nice to see comments shown more like on the Web version, where the first few remarks are displayed by default without making the user hit a button to see them.
Like MyPad, the Facebook app lets you quickly toggle between multiple accounts, though that's not immediately apparent on your first log-on. Once you've signed on the first person, go to Account, then Log Out, and you'll be taken to a spot at which you can add another user. It seems each user will always have to enter a password, as opposed to MyPad, which doesn't offer the option of protecting your account at all. Which is better -- ease of access or security? That depends on how much you trust the person with whom you share an iPad. However, it would be great if an app offered password protection as an option but not as a requirement.
One of the features you'll find Facebook boasting about on its App Store page is the ability to view full-screen photos and flip through them like real photo albums. This is definitely an improvement over the straight Web version, though MyPad does have a nice photo viewer too. Still, I prefer Facebook's thumbnail album view, the minithumbs at the bottom and the ability to Like a photo, as well as comment on it.
Finally, sliding panes around on MyPad feels more refined somehow. You can have three windows stacked neatly on top of each other -- website, News Feed, controls -- and slide freely back and forth between them.
When you're finished with the Web viewer on Facebook's app, you can slide it to the right to get back to your News Feed, but whereas the MyPad app lets you slide to toggle between the two, Facebook's browser goes away never to return when you slide it out of view. So if you want to get back to that site, you'll have to find the original link and tap it again.
Facebook's app does have a nice chat interface that opens up on landscape view.
I half expected that Fakebook apps would be rendered obsolete once Facebook puts an official iPad app in the store. And they probably will see their downloads shrink drastically.
But even though Facebook's own app may be able to provide access to parts of a user's profile third parties simply can't get to, the new app feels a little rough around the edges sometimes, and there's still room for other app makers to offer up sellable alternatives.