Joe Hewitt

Developing Facebook for iPhone

Last week I launched the second major iteration of Facebook's iPhone app, which finally lives up to our users' expectations and delivers most of the features they wanted. Getting here has been really challenging, and I'm finally at a point where I can reflect back on the experience and try to share what I've learned.

The 1.0 version of the app was trashed in reviews for its lack of features, which was really hard for me to take given how hard I worked on it. People must have assumed that all I had to do was plug Facebook's data into Apple's ready-to-use UI components and hit the GO button. I wish it had been that easy, but unfortunately many of the components I needed were missing from the iPhone SDK, even though they existed in Apple's own apps. The lack of a mail composer and a photo browser were particularly disappointing.

I had to make a choice: I could dash off weak versions of these components and hope Apple adds the full versions to the SDK later, or I could attempt to replicate them in great enough detail to convince users they were using a standard interface. I chose to take the latter path, and it definitely cost me a lot of development time which could have been used to add more features. One other side effect was that users actually did think they were using a standard interface built by Apple, and so they gave me no love for the work I did, and instead insulted me for not taking the time to deliver more features.

In retrospect, I think I made the right decision. I still can't believe how many apps I've downloaded from the App Store which exhibit no ambition to reach the high bar of quality set by Apple's apps. Many of these apps still receive great reviews for having long feature checklists, which is unfortunate because it only encourages more lazy UI engineering. Just the number of half-assed photo browsers I've found is astounding. I've spent a ton of time working on Facebook's photo browser and it is still only about 80% as good as Apple's, but it close enough to feel familiar to anyone that has used the built-in Photos app.

I have no doubt that Apple will make big improvements to the SDK in the near future, but in the mean time I want to help the open source community fill in the gaps. The iPhone SDK agreement says that you can't distribute "frameworks", but my contacts at Apple Developer Relations have said that it is OK to distribute "sample code". I would like to try and extract as much as I can from Facebook for iPhone and publish it as simple Xcode projects that you can play with and copy from.