Facebook Boosts Android App Speed After Trip to Africa

PCMag.com

June 23, 2014

The Facebook for Android app got an update—thanks to a team trip to Africa.

Facebook this week rolled out an update to its Android app that adds some new options for liking and tagging posts, but the social network also provided a sneak peek into how a team trip to Africa helped boost apps speeds for users around the globe.

Within the update, Facebook added the ability to "Like" posts, photos and pages when you're offline; remove tags you've created; remove tags of yourself that your friends have created; and turn post notifications on and off, in addition to improvements for speed and reliability.

On that front, Facebook engineer Alex Sourov wrote in a blog post this week that "our mission extends far beyond building and delivering the best experience on high-end smartphones and LTE networks. We want Facebook to work for everyone—no matter the region, network condition, or mobile device."

Thus, Facebook sent a team of product managers and engineers to Africa, where mobile performance doesn't quite match up with service in the U.S.—from network connections to actual devices.

"We purchased several different Android handsets to test the latest version of the Facebook app—and the testing process proved to be difficult. The combination of an intermittent, low-bandwidth network connection and a lack of memory space on the devices resulted in slow load times and constant crashes. We even burned through our monthly data plans in 40 minutes," Sourov wrote.

The result of Facebook's trip? Its engineers and product managers came up with four key areas where they could tweak its mobile app a bit: Performance, data efficiency, networking and the size of the application.

Facebook's modifications to the application's loading process involved tweaking how features get loaded within the app—on single-core mobile devices, this presented a bit of a bottleneck as the smartphones struggled to churn up a bunch of processes simultaneously. Facebook also tweaked the loading process for News Feed stories to more quickly deliver cached content (for those on crappy networks). Together, these two modifications "reduced start times by more than 50% in the six months following the trip to Arfira," Sourov wrote.

Facebook also tweaked image compression and the image-loading process for low-grade devices in an effort to reduce data consumption as much as possible. In total, the company was able to cut data use by 50%—a boon for those attempting to use the app in countries where data packages for mobile devices are exceedingly expensive. Additionally, tweaks to the app's networking stack allowed Facebook to cut reports of slow or failed image loading by nearly 90% compared to one year prior.

Finally, Facebook's tweaks to the very size of its mobile application allowed it to shave off 65% of its previous weight, data-wise. That's great for downloaders and, more importantly, great for mobile devices that don't otherwise have a lot of free disk space to work with.

"The lessons learned have already impacted the development of new features. We test all major features and changes in poor networking scenarios. We have automated verification for various performance and efficiency characteristics, which allows the features team to receive immediate feedback on the impact of their code. We also expanded our playbook to other apps, such as Messenger and Instagram," Sourov wrote.

"We will continue to innovate to make the Facebook experience better in emerging markets, and share tools and information that can help developers build apps that work well on different handsets, network environments, and operating systems."

The updated app is available in Google Play.

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