Facebook Updates App with Offline Features for Faster Reading
Because even those with Internet connections often tend to have only slow or spotty access, Facebook this week began rolling out some changes to make it easier for people to use its mobile app when their devices are offline or loading content at a snail's pace.
According to the latest figures from the International Telecommunication Union, nearly 7.1 billion people -- 95 percent of the world's population -- are now covered by a mobile-cellular signal, although only 3.2 billion are online.
Facebook has recently been focusing its efforts on improving the user experience for people with 2G connections that tend to offer speeds of just 40 Kbps, compared to 4G connections that can exceed 20 Mbps. The updates announced yesterday will speed up the loading of News Feed content when users have poor connections, and will also allow people to comment on posts when they are offline.
"People are coming online at a staggering rate in emerging markets and, in most cases, are doing so on mobile via 2G connections," Facebook said in a statement. It added that it plans to roll out and test the latest News Feed changes over time to assess how they might improve users' experiences.
Ranking Relevance for Unread Stories
"In the past, if you were on a poor Internet connection or had no connection, you might need to wait for stories to load when you opened News Feed," product manager Chris Marra and engineering manager Alex Sourov wrote in a post on Facebook's engineering blog. "We are now testing an update in which we look at all the previously downloaded stories present on your phone that you have not yet viewed, and rank them based on their relevance."
The update will work like this: News Feed stories that have been previously downloaded but not yet read will be ranked for each user based on relevance. Those stories will then appear first if more recent content is loading slowly because of a poor or offline Internet connection.
Once the connection is improved or re-established, the Facebook app will load and rank the latest News Feed stories as usual. Marra and Sourov added that Facebook is also testing ways to keep the feed updated throughout the day "by periodically retrieving new stories when you have a good connection."
In addition, users who are offline will now be able to compose comments on posts, and see those comments appear online later when their Internet connections are re-established.
"These changes will help anyone who is on a poor Internet connection -- even those whose network connectivity is generally good but who have intermittent connections in places like subways and tunnels, or at large events," Marra and Sourov said.
'Progress is Encouraging'
When it comes to improving usability for people with slow or offline Internet access, Facebook's latest effort has plenty of company. Last month, for example, Google announced that it was adding offline navigation and search capabilities for mobile users of Google Maps. Many other tech giants are also putting a focus on bringing "the next billion" online.
Non-profits like the University of North Carolina-affiliated WiderNet Project are also exploring innovative ways to bring online content to parts of the world that are still mostly offline. The project has delivered at least 1,000 so-called "Internet-in-a-Box" packages -- Web site content copied with permission onto hard drives for uploading at remote locations -- to schools and other organizations in remote areas.
"Progress is encouraging in many areas but more needs to be done -- especially in the world's poorest and remotest regions, where ICTs can arguably make the biggest difference, and help bring people everywhere out of extreme poverty," Brahima Sanou, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau said last month upon the release of the ITU's annual "Information Society" report.