Yesterday, following his talk at the Inside Social Apps conference in San Francisco, I had a chance to sit down with Facebook CTO Bret Taylor. I’ve been following Taylor’s work pretty closely since the early FriendFeed days, so it has been interesting to watch his transition into this powerful role inside of Facebook. And make no mistake, he’s transitioned well.
We talked about a wide range of topics regarding the company these days, and Taylor has a clear command over pretty much all of them. Obviously, he knows plenty of things that he’s not going to tell me, but the answers he did give are actually pretty insightful as well.
First of all, just as he did during his time on stage, Taylor made it very clear that there are two key high-level focuses for Facebook in 2011 from a technology perspective: HTML5 and mobile. And actually, as he sees them, those are both very much related as well.
Taylor said that the biggest transition internally that Facebook will make this year is a shift towards much more development resources being placed in mobile. Whereas right now, most developers are working on the site itself, over the next year, as they focus more on HTML5, that’s going to shift. Further, “over the next couple of years, a large percentage [of development teams] will be working on mobile primarily,” Taylor said.
Taylor said that there’s already a team just devoted to making HTML5 games within Facebook a reality. Sure enough, today we got a lengthy post from Facebook about the very matter. Of note, so far the team has found that short-term, 2D games are the only kind that are going to be really feasible with HTML5 until WebGL is more of a reality. And all of this s very early, but Facebook wants to share their finding as quickly as possible to help the web evolve.
Does that mean an evolution away from Flash? After all, Flash dominates the market for the types of HTML5 games that Facebook is talking about. “Well it’s hard,” Taylor said about Flash specifically. When I laughed and noted he was giving the diplomatic answer, he assured me that it is something they think about a lot. “We want to be ahead of the curve and fill in the gaps when possible,” is how he ended up putting it.
And this stance on HTML5 is vital for Facebook because Taylor really does see mobile as the future — but as it stands right now, that’s a bit of a problem. “The popularity of mobile devices will change,” he said implying that the dominant devices today might not be so dominant in the future. And if that’s the case, why should Facebook dump resources into them? Wouldn’t it be easier if they just focused on HTML5 — something which will work on an increasing number of devices going forward? Of course.
“We want Facebook to be consistent on the web and on mobile,” Taylor said, echoing what he had said earlier on stage. He also spoke about the trend of web applications taking cues from mobile apps. “I think that’s a really interesting trend. And it’s one that I’m really excited about,” he said. “People design better with constraints,” he continued, acknowledging that the latest version of Twitter on the web was a great example.
Oh, and yes, Taylor also said that work is well underway for tablet-optimized versions of Facebook. But he still wouldn’t commit to a Facebook iPad native app anytime soon.
I then moved on to more specific products within Facebook.
I first asked about Single Sign-On. This is the product that’s supposed to greatly ease the strain of having to sign in over and over and over again within native mobile apps. Taylor noted that most of the top apps have already implemented it, and said that as its adoption continues, the entire experience will only get better.
But he acknowledged that it’s not a perfect system, and went into some detail about how they have to get it to work on the iPhone, which is more limiting on background functions between apps. Essentially what they have to do is dump you into the Facebook app to load up your info then immediately take you back to the app you’re trying to log-in to.
Asked about Messages, Taylor said that it’s going great overall. “It’s a pretty big new system for us,” he said noting that the email and SMS additions require quite a bit of work to get going. “We’re rolling it out social group by social group,” he continued. “We hope to have it rolled out fully in the not too distant future,” he went on to say, which should be good news for a lot of users out there.
When I asked about the transition at the top of the Places group, with Justin Shaffer (fresh from the Hot Potato acquisition) taking over the project from Michael Sharon, Taylor noted that Sharon had been working on it for a long time. “It’s business style versus functional style,” he continued. “We encourage people to rotate around projects,” he said noting that Sharon was still working on the mobile team.
In terms of the Places product itself, “right now we’re focused on social value,” Taylor said. “Obviously, deals is a big part of the product, but we need to build really valuable social interactions,” he said. In terms of what’s driving people to use it, it’s simple: the ability to tell friends where you are — and the way they can tag you at a place.
With regard to the Questions product, Taylor was a bit more reserved, calling it “a very different product than most Facebook products.” “It’s not quite in the state that you want to roll it out fully. We have a lot to do on it,” he continued.
Groups, however, Taylor was much more enthusiastic about. “Groups are being used a lot,” he said. Again, one of the big things he cited there is that people can set up Groups on behalf of other people. When I asked if this was helping the product much like picture tagging did early on in Photos, Taylor said it absolutely was. “It’s been growing really well,” he said.
“Lists were really about filtering, Groups are about sharing,” he said also noting that the privacy issue here is interesting. That was a key focus for Groups, making it very easy and obvious to see who exactly you’re sharing what with.
I then asked what Taylor thought about the rise of these new mobile photo sharing apps like Instagram and PicPlz. Do these pose some sort of threat to Facebook? “It’s something we’ve talked about a lot — about what the interaction they’re seeing means,” Taylor said. “But we’re really happy that they’re built on top of our graph,” he continued with a laugh. He also said that he can’t wait to see how those products will evolve, noting that this is the first time we’ve seen a genre arise around a very particular element.
He also said that like Flickr and other more established photo services, the majority of pictures coming into Facebook now come from smartphones. So the service has to look at what these smaller players are doing and adapt.
Finally, I asked Taylor about the Turkish use of FriendFeed sustaining it against U.S. traffic loses. He said it has been amazing to see it rise there and in a few other countries organically. He also said that before he left Facebook, fellow FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit did a few things to ensure that FriendFeed will be able to run completely autonomously indefinitely.