From the late 90’s into the early 2000’s, many web developers seemed to have a vengeance against blank space. Without any regard for bandwidth or speed, developers filled pages with unnecessary templates and content that bogged down the experience for many visitors. Flash graphics and animations were just a few of the many culprits that were seen far too frequently amongst trends in web development. Animations and flash graphics took an enormous amount of bandwidth to load, which often created major logjams for some users, but developers simply didn’t seem to care. Internet providers also had to struggle to keep up with the rising demands for increased bandwidth, which caused costs to skyrocket. Essentially, developers drove the entire industry, forcing internet providers and consumers to try and keep up.
The Impact of Smartphones
Smartphones introduced the ability for users to access information where they often needed it the most – on the go. This previously untouched market created a massive opportunity for service providers. The trouble, of course, was that the data-laden pages that were already mind-numbingly slow on a desktop computer were downright glacial on mobile devices.
This bottlenecking presented an immediate need for mobile website optimization to cater to the rapidly expanding market. Businesses were starting to see the value of downsizing and streamlining their websites and begun the removal of unnecessary flash graphics and animations. However, the same underlying attitude remained the same: we will maximize all the tools we have at our disposal, you (the consumer and service providers) need to keep up with higher data speeds.
This, of course, did the same thing for the mobile world that animations and graphics did for the desktop world. It forced service providers to drastically increase their investments in infrastructure to provide faster data, which in turn drove mobile data plan rates through the roof.
And Then Came Facebook
In 2008, Facebook hit 100 million users, which seemed unattainable at the time. Rather than resting on their laurels, however, they doubled down on their efforts to hit 500 million in 2010 and now, there’s over 2 billion active users in 2017. Regardless of your product, there will always be a finite market and if you are able to sustain your growth, you will eventually saturate that market. If you make it to that point, you only have a few choices: expand your product line, expand into a different industry altogether or find a way to expand your market. Facebook chose the last option, and in doing so, shifted the entire paradigm of website design.
While many companies might be satisfied with 1 billion users, Facebook was not. Their relentless pursuit of global dominance led them to uncover game-changing information so substantial that they decided to alter their entire strategy. The sheer size and reach of Facebook caused a widespread trickle down effect that changed the entire web development industry.
Optimization for a Global Mobile World
According to recent studies, over 2.4 billion people have access to and regularly use a smartphone in their day to day lives. In 2012, PC usage began a downward trend for the first time, while smart phone usage has done the opposite. In fact, more and more adults in the US are becoming smart phone dependent – meaning they do not even own a desktop PC, but use their smart phone as their only internet device.
What Facebook realized, however, is that while smart phone usage is growing around the globe in line with with smart phone dependence, hundreds of millions of users are still using 2G and 3G service. Armed with this knowledge, Facebook came up with a clever approach. As most tech giants pursued innovation as the driving factor of their growth and success, Facebook decided to dial back their efforts to capture the part of the market that had been left in the dust; they began working on a product that users around the globe could use with what they had available. As a result, Facebook Lite was born to cater to those who only had access to 2G and 3G networks. For the first time, a major developer chose to make a major mobile downgrade to make their program available to more users rather than expecting users and providers to try and keep up.
Trickle down effect
Understanding the reasoning behind Facebook Lite, it wasn’t long before other social media giants followed suit. Industry-leading apps and developers have taken a page from Facebook’s book to focus on simple design principles to streamline their user experience. With Facebook lite came the simple interfaces of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so many more popular applications and websites. Facebook’s bold move allowed them to recently pass the mark of 2 billion active users, but they’re not done growing yet. Facebook’s leadership has done far more than simply change world of social media, it has had a trickle down effect on the entire web development industry. While web developers have always recognized that websites should be stripped down and optimized for mobile, they have only been trimmed to the point where they could be easily used on a 4G or LTE network. Now developers are recognizing if they want to create a site that is truly globally compatible, they have to do more.
Facebook’s alternative approach has also affected far more than just mobile optimization. It has also had something of a “trickle up effect” as well. With the understanding that vast parts of the world do not yet have access to 4G (let alone LTE networks), it became clear that even broadband is not as fast in many parts of the world. What began as simple optimization for the slowest mobile devices has now pushed developers to focus on desktop sites in an effort to streamline their user experience. In an industry that seems to have been driven by the philosophy that “more is more” for almost two decades, it seems that “less is more” is finally taking hold as the industry standard. For example, look at any of the top apps in the App Store or any popular websites in the past five years. You’d be hard pressed to come across a page flooded with animations, flash, and excess content, because Facebook Lite made it clear that there is no place for unnecessary data on modern platforms. Simple is better; it’s smoother, more appealing, and cheaper for consumers and service providers alike.
Good for the Globe
A “less is more” approach to mobile development might actually be good for the entire planet as well. With mobile providers being forced to spend less of their resources and attention on creating more capable networks for users in the developed world, they can direct some of those resources towards helping the developing world move into the 21st century. Once again, Facebook is at the forefront of this effort as well. Not only are they developing an entire arsenal of land-based infrastructure to help spread online access to every region of the globe, but they are currently developing a massive drone to help boost cell service in even the most rural and remote regions like sub-saharan Africa.