How Facebook Stepped in a Hole on Mobile

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- There was a really interesting discussion on a service called Branch a few days ago about Facebook's ( FB) new mobile app.

Branch is kind of short-form way to have multiple people chime in on an interesting discussion topic in a way that a community gets to view it and participate it. This one involved tech heavyweights such as TechCrunch and Crunch Fund's MG Siegler, Daring Fireball's John Gruber and the New York Times' Nick Bilton.

Everyone knows that Facebook recently upgraded its mobile app for iPhone. It has been a huge improvement. In my view, it's not so much that the new app is so great compared to other apps. It's just that the old Facebook app was so bad, this new version seems like a godsend in comparison.

The Branch discussion gets a little technical for some as it discusses the reasons for why the old version was so slow and buggy and why the new version is so quick. Basically, back when Facebook built its original iPhone app, it had to make a philosophical choice on how to do it.

It could have built one app in native iOS for Apple ( AAPL) and then a different version optimized for Android, and others for Microsoft ( MSFT) Windows Phone and Research In Motion ( RIMM).

The advantages of doing so would be that the various Facebook apps would be optimized for each of those different operating systems. They would each look great and run faster and more efficiently.

But the downside of this approach was that it would take a lot more time and resources. You'd be redoing your efforts three or four times and then supporting these various operating systems over time.

The alternative for Facebook was to go with something called HTML5. This was supposed to be the next-generation version of the HTML coding language that had proliferated on the web for many years. Back in the early days of the Web, there were different browsers such as Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The prevalence of HTML ensured that Web site developers didn't have to make multiple versions of the same website for users depending on the browser they were using.

Instead, HTML allowed one common language to proliferate.

HTML5 and its advocates believed the same thing would happen in the mobile Internet. Mobile developers wouldn't want to do all the work to build different versions of the same mobile apps. So they'd all opt for HTML5 as a programming language.

Facebook was very supportive of this philosophical view. After all, it didn't have a dog in the mobile OS fight because Facebook was just an app running on Android or iOS. As well, Facebook wanted to minimize the work required to keep up in servicing the various mobile apps. So, Facebook chose to write its apps in HTML5.

With that one decision -- which makes sense when you think about the various pluses and minuses of the different options -- it made its original Facebook app perhaps the most hated mobile app ever.

It was slow. It was buggy. It crashed -- a lot. I don't pay that much attention to reviews of different apps in the App Store, but the low scores for Facebook's and the terrible comments were remarkable, especially considering that it was one of the most downloaded apps on the store.

What's really interesting in reading the discussion in Branch about this bad decision is how long it takes to really undo a bad decision.

For the first year or so after making any decision like this, it's still early days. If there were users who complained, it would be easy for the Facebook management (who naturally wants to think they made the right decision) to say to others, "It's still early days for HTML5, so we don't need to worry." Or they might have thought, "Well, mobile hasn't really taken off anyway, so we can wait."

In the second year after a really bad decision, there were likely some doubters on the management team -- but they would have likely had long debates with those who probably still thought there was no problem.

In the third year after a really bad decision, when people really start to complain, that's when any management team has to look itself in the mirror and admit it's wrong. But even after they do that, there's all the work required to undo a bad decision.

With the newest release, Facebook chose to rebuild the app in Objective-C as a native app for iOS. There still isn't a new version of Facebook for Android. Essentially, the company went back to reverse its earliest decision and chose to optimize it for iOS.

Will it matter now? It's a big improvement and will surely make it easier for them to roll out new ads in it. However, the lag to get this out there has certainly hurt Facebook's momentum in mobile compared to Twitter.

The real lesson of this story is that no one at Facebook set out to make a terrible decision. They always thought they were making the right decision.

Yet, as humans, we all have biases that we don't want to admit our past decisions were mistakes. We delay looking at the truth. Sometimes our best efforts and intentions can lead us in disastrous directions.

At the time of publication the author had a position in AAPL.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Eric Jackson is founder and Managing Member of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd. In January 2007, Jackson started the world's first Internet-based campaign to increase shareholder value at Yahoo!, leading to a change in CEOs in 2007. He also spoke out in favor of Yahoo!'s accepting Microsoft's buyout offer in 2008. Global Proxy Watch named Jackson as one of its 10 "Stars" who positively influenced international corporate governance and shareowner value in 2007.

Prior to founding Ironfire Capital, Jackson was President and CEO of Jackson Leadership Systems, Inc., a leadership, strategy, and governance consulting firm. He completed his Ph.D. in the Management Department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, with a specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Governance, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.

He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at VoiceGenie Technologies, a software firm now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2004, Jackson founded the Young Patrons' Circle at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is now the second-largest social and philanthropic group of its kind in North America, raising $500,000 annually for the museum. You can follow Jackson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ericjackson or @ericjackson.

You can contact Eric by emailing him at eric.jackson@thestreet.com.

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