Made in Tel Aviv: Facebook Lite

By Tzach HadarDekel Naar
August 19, 2020

People often think that once you are on a smartphone, you will have the world at your fingertips. But that’s not always true.

When Facebook was searching for ways to reach rural and remote communities with low internet connectivity, we found an answer in Israel. Snaptu, a Tel Aviv–based company, had developed a software platform that allowed simpler feature phones to run smartphone-like apps. Snaptu’s platform followed a core architecture concept that intrigued us. It was heavily server assisted and offloaded most of the heavy lifting away from the user using methods that we felt would prove useful in streamlining Facebook’s own mobile app.

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When Facebook acquired Snaptu in 2011, we began exploring how to apply Snaptu’s technology to our own products. In 2015, our engineering team in Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif. office released Facebook Lite, a simplified version of the Facebook app that is only about 2 MB in size (in comparison, the Facebook app for Android is 51 MB).

But making something as sophisticated as Facebook that much smaller was not an easy task. Since it’s release, Facebook Lite’s development has moved to the company’s Tel Aviv office, where we’ve continued to integrate new features into the app while also keeping it lean.

On average, just under 59 percent of the world is online, compared with nearly 95 percent of people in North America. For the regions that are connected, many do not possess the up-to-date mobile devices, robust networks, or affordable data plans necessary to download larger apps, like Facebook and Instagram. Because of this, they have been effectively shut out from social media.

In South Africa, for example, only 17.3 percent of households in metropolitan areas and 1.7 percent of rural households have internet access at home, according to Statistics South Africa’s latest General Household Survey. The most common means of internet access in the Republic of South Africa is via mobile, which is used by 60.1 percent of the population. In rural areas in particular, this means people’s internet access can be limited by their mobile data plan. Facebook Lite delivers a version of Facebook for Android devices that consumes less data than the standard app and can operate on 2G mobile networks. It gives people a reliable Facebook experience even when bandwidth is low.

It also addresses cases where a simpler experience may be better. For instance, we felt that Facebook’s traditional interface might feel cluttered and overwhelming to someone with limited experience with user interfaces. More time spent unnecessarily navigating the interface means more data used. Winnowing down what appears on Facebook Lite’s homepage makes people more comfortable and speeds up the app’s overall performance. Similarly, Facebook Lite strips down the default settings so that people can decide for themselves what features are worth the space. And the app automatically sends out alerts when data storage space is growing cramped.

Facebook Lite was initially introduced in a handful of markets, but news of a lighter Facebook traveled fast. Within a few weeks, enthusiastic people began sharing Facebook Lite directly with their friends. Today, Facebook Lite serves hundreds of millions of users every month.

The more popular Facebook Lite became, the more we wanted to do with it. It wasn’t enough for people to just be thankful it works; they had to be excited to use it. Our tight-knit team at Facebook Lite operates like a startup, poring over each detail of the app from conception to production. It’s a practice that serves us well as a team based in Israel, which boasts not only a robust community of engineers but also the world’s highest number of startups per capita — all within a country of 8.5 million people that is roughly the size of New Jersey.

People here are very used to just getting things done. Just being lightweight and efficient was no longer enough. Before long, our team was pushing to deliver the same quality and selection of features on Facebook Lite that the full app offered. We wanted everyone, regardless of their phone or network access, to be able to enjoy the full range of Facebook experiences. That means more than just interacting with their friends and family, but also the communities they care about. Since its debut, Facebook Lite has expanded, adding new features geared toward this larger goal of building and accessing communities — all while keeping the app size consistently small.

People are continually finding creative ways to use social media to build their livelihoods. Street vendors in Vietnam, for instance, post live video of their products on Facebook so that customers can swing by their stand to get the latest merch or place orders via Facebook’s direct messaging.

The question for those of us on the Facebook Lite team was, then, whether rich features like live video could be included in Facebook Lite. Slimming down a feature as sophisticated as live video can be challenging. Typically, software engineers add experience-enhancing features, like beautiful images or videos, by incorporating existing technology. However, the nature of Facebook Lite meant we’d need to build each feature from scratch and, in the process, figure out how to economically construct the same experience using less storage and data.

Facebook Lite operates on two key principles: Leave no one behind, and don’t compromise experience. But including video features meant trade-offs had to be made between keeping data usage low and the size of the app small for all the people using it, while still providing a more tailored experience for those who want to engage with the content on Facebook Live and Facebook Watch.

We took a two-layered approach, tackling the infrastructure and the product experience. First, at the infrastructure level, we added support for a more advanced video player module that provides a better experience, can support the downloadable live videos module, and extends the app for those who choose to engage with video content without affecting those that don’t.

In the product design, we adapted the Facebook Lite experience based on the intent of the person using it. Someone who mainly only browses their News Feed, for example, is likely to be more data-conscious than someone who engages with a product like Watch. We allow people using Facebook Lite to enable and disable these sorts of features to their liking. 

A few weeks ago, Facebook Lite added the ability to create or join Rooms, making it even easier for people to spend quality time with friends, loved ones and people who share their interests. Bringing Rooms to Facebook Lite presented additional challenges because people use the Lite app quite differently in certain parts of the world. For example, some might not have the Messenger app installed or could share their mobile device with another family member - the engineering team had to think about these specific cases and build an experience that would work for them.

Today, anyone can download Facebook Lite for Android and KaiOS (a popular mobile platform in India). And we plan to keep expanding Facebook Lite’s offerings as its popularity grows in other markets.

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