On The Eve Of One Facebook Event, The Spartans Prepare For Another

Tomorrow morning at their headquarters in Palo Alto, Facebook is holding an event to show off an “awesome” new product. Our sources tell us that product with be the long-rumored Skype integration within Facebook for full-on video chat goodness — just a week after arch nemesis Google unveiled Hangouts as a part of Google+. Given that news has already leaked out, it’s certainly possible that Facebook could surprise with talk of their iPad app or new Photos experience as well. But one thing not on the agenda is Project Spartan.

You’ll recall that Project Spartan is the HTML5-driven mobile application platform that Facebook has been quietly building for months with the help of a group of third-party app developers. While some of those very developers believe Facebook’s intentions here is to break up the control Apple (and Google) have over the mobile app space, Facebook started freaking out when we reported that. The spin began almost immediately. And it has continued, even with the group of third-party developers working on the project — they’re affectionately known as “Spartans”.

We previously reported that after our initial story, Facebook began reaching out to the Spartans, reminding them that the information of the project was confidential (while telling the press this stuff was really “nothing new”). Since then, Facebook has stepped up their game as well. We now hear that there’s been a lot of stern talks with the Spartans, telling them that the project is not about going after Apple. But it’s not really working. “I look at these apps and how content rich they are and how they have nothing to do with Apple and everything to do with Facebook and assume that they think we are retarded,” is how one put it.

One developer says that the quality of the apps on the platform is really surprising — in a good way, naturally. Apparently, there are going to be a ton of games that will be a part of the Spartan launch. This shouldn’t be too surprising, HTML5 gaming has been something Facebook has been pushing. And Zynga is believed to be heavily involved in the project.

So when will Spartan launch? Facebook is pushing to have everyone ready by July 15. One source expects a formal unveiling to be sometime between then and August 1.

While we’ve been hesitant to provide many screenshots of what the project looks like since it could give away sources, we have secured the one below which has been slightly altered. You’ll note that it looks like a modified version of the current Facebook mobile site. Of course, two things you won’t find on the current mobile site are right there staring you in the face: Games and Apps — with notifications too!

The blue bar along the top is referred to as “chrome” (yes, it shares a name with a Google product). Developers say it’s the glue that binds all the different mobile sites together. That’s one key — these HTML5 apps are said to reside elsewhere, not on Facebook’s own servers (at least right now). So instead they have to make external calls to pull in the Facebook “chrome” to make the apps look like proper Facebook apps.

For a better idea of how this may work, check out this “Getting Started” site set up by Matt Kelly, a Facebook engineer who works with developers. Undoubtedly, this site will be pulled, but it essentially shows how HTML-based navigation is set up on a third-party site. It looks good, and is fast. And it contains talk about things such as to use remote calls to send action alerts inside of a mobile web app — “This can be used for re-engagement, like telling a friend it’s their turn in a board game.”

Also worth noting is a separate tip we got pointing to this page. Apparently, the Facebook Javascript SDK underwent some big changes in the past week, including a lot of references to FB.Native, iOS, and Android. One developer notes that the native code mentions seem largely related to orientation, and wonders if that’s tied in to the iPad app. There is also a bunch of code for “mweb” (mobile web), which apparently is a new parameter that allows apps to auto-login when coming from Facebook’s Platform (yes, Spartan apps).

Previously, we speculated that Project Spartan and the iPad app release could be related. In fact, we had heard that Facebook and Apple were even working together on some things, at least loosely. While the ultimate goal of Spartan is clearly for HTML5 prevail, it is possible that Apple simply doesn’t believe it will anytime soon and is happy to help Facebook try their hand, while also helping the web in general move beyond Flash (think of the position Flash would be in without all those games requiring it).

Notes one developer:

Facebook wants a cut of the Apple’s mobile app market, that’s been clear this entire time. Perhaps it’s not war against Apple — maybe Apple is just going to ‘gift’ Facebook the share of their market (the HTML5 share) in exchange an alliance being formed whereby Apple get’s some exclusive access to Facebook’s 600 million-plus users and thereby cutting out Google (exclusive to some degree, Facebook is too open for it to be fully exclusive). In this theory, it’s not Facebook Spartans vs. Apple, it’s Facebook/Apple Spartans Vs Google.

The Spartans have been told to code specifically for the iOS flavors of Safari — both iPhone and iPad.

The truth is that it’s hard to know Facebook’s exact intentions at this point — too much seems in flux right now and Facebook is holding their cards pretty close to their chest after a series of leaks. Certainly, the HTML5 angle will be played up as “open” rather than being against either Apple or Google. But the larger reality remains: Facebook wants this HTML5 app platform to succeed so the mobile world is not fully controlled by those two companies. And they want their own Credits platform to dominate mobile. Facebook has to play nice and say the right things for now since they do not have their own phone — yet.

Speaking of that, there’s not much here, but we have heard that the work on Facebook phone project continues. One whisper has them working closely with Samsung. Another has them working with Pivotal Labs as well. Facebook will disavow all knowledge of this of course. But it takes nothing more than a quick rational thought to realize that for the future Facebook needs to be in control of two things to maintain power: a web browser and a mobile phone. The thought that they wouldn’t be working on both is what’s really crazy.

And none of this speaks to the other big projects Facebook has going on, like their music launch. Which will probably be at their next f8 which the last we heard will be at the end of August. And yes, it will involve a lot of partners.

This summer is shaping up to be a very exciting one for Facebook. It begins tomorrow.

[thanks Tom — to be clear, not a Spartan source, a tipster of some other info above]