The Instant Mobile Web

The idea of presenting fast-loading news stories on mobile devices has been productised as Instant Articles by Facebook, together with selected media partners. The product has caused a renewed uproar in the debate on Web vs Native.

The product was discussed in ATP eps 117, where John Siracusa and Marco Arment discuss the implications of Facebook succeeding as a gateway for delivering mobile news. Not unexpected from a mobile app developer, Marco Arment takes the stand that the web is no longer relevant in the age of mobile.

Marco Arment reasons that people have voted with their time and attention, and the future is centralised proprietary ecosystems focused on social and snackable, listicle traffic, and nobody cares about the open (mobile) web.

On his blog, Baldur Bjarnason captures the nuances of the debate in his post Facebook and the media: united, they attack the web. He nails it with the statement:

The web doesn’t suck. Your websites suck. All of your websites suck.

The reality is, that few media websites are optimised for maximum page loading speed.

Slow page loading can have many causes, but most often the cause is badly optimised image loading, and over-stuffing of pages with new and fancy javascript toolkits and frameworks, most of which are slow and buggy.

If media sites focussed on page speed, they could deliver a web experience that is very close to what Instant Articles provide. As Baldur puts it:

If your web developers are telling you that a website delivering hypertext and images can’t be just as fast as a native app (albeit behaving in different ways) then you should fire them.

You could improve almost any media site by getting rid of the javascript cruft, reduce the number of images, and focus on using the main building blocks of the native web (text and links), combined with techniques for optimised page loading and caching.

Media companies backing Facebook Instant Articles are not only giving up their independence, but also the opportunity of building something much better. Baldur:

The web is capable of impressive performance and offers a dramatically vaster reach and accessibility than anything an app can offer.

Consolidating media publishing power within the mobile app of a proprietary closed silo is not a long term solution.

Optimising page speed of media sites, to provide the “instant” mobile web, is a long term solution.