UPDATE – March 30, 2011: The Static FBML app can no longer be added to Fan Pages. Existing Static FBML tabs can be edited, but new tabs can’t be created.
The news rippled through the Facebook developer community — Facebook is phasing out FBML, its proprietary mark-up language that facilitates communication with the Facebook Platform API (“Application Programming Interface”).
What will this mean for Static FBML, Facebook’s application that allows users with little coding experience or expertise to create custom tabs for their Business Pages?
And what will it mean for a thriving class of FBML Entrepreneurs, many of whom knew very little about Web coding a year ago but, because mastering a small subset of HTML and FBML tags isn’t exactly rocket science, have been able to build and market to communities of followers who know even less?
In this article, I will explain the change and clarify some of Facebook’s confusing terminology.
Also, I posed some key questions regarding this change, how it affects Static FBML, why Facebook is making this change, whether or not it’s a good thing, and what developers need to know and do to adapt to the change. Read the responses of our esteemed Panel of Experts!
Facebook Drops the First Shoe: Use iFrames, Not FBML
In early 2010, Facebook advised on its FBML page:
I know that I found this advisory a bit confusing. Facebook always offered two “flavors” of custom application, FBML and iFrame, so why would they tell you not to use FBML?
The Other Shoe Drops: No New FBML Apps After 2010
Well, on August 19, 2010, Facebook posted on their developer blog:
What are iFrames and Why the Change?
An iframe is an inline frame, an HTML structure that allows another HTML document to be inserted into an HTML page.
With an iFrame canvas application, the content of your application is located in an HTML document that is NOT hosted on Facebook’s servers. Rather, the content is pulled into the Facebook “chrome” (all the graphical and content that surrounds the content of the application — the header, the right column with ads, etc.) via the iFrame.
Most developers believe the external hosting of app content is the primary, although not only, reason for the move away from FBML.
Aren’t iFrames Already Supported for Custom Tabs that use an iFrame Canvas App?
What Facebook means about iFrames not currently being supported in Page tabs is that on a Page tab, a user action (usually a click) is required in order to load the iFramed content (an external HTML file). So, I assume that “in the next few months” Facebook will no longer require the user action to load iFramed content in custom tabs. (Remember, these are “Facebook Months” which can translate into much longer periods of time!)
iFrames? Canvas Applications? Custom Tabs? What’s the What?
My colleague Tommy Inglis of BrandCraft Inc. explains the differences:
A canvas application describes an application like Farmville or Mafia Wars. The application lives on the Facebook Platform and usually requires a user to “Allow” the application to use their information to operate.
A canvas application is viewed on a Canvas Page which has its own URL distinct from a Fan Page URL.
A custom tab is a tab (on a Fan Page) in Facebook’s top blue-tabbed navigation that isn’t the Wall, Info or other Facebook generic tab.
A custom tab has a maximum allowable width of 520 pixels.
Canvas applications, when viewed on their application URL, have a maximum allowable width of 760 pixels. When added as a tab on a Fan Page, the maximum allowable width is 520 pixels.
The Pros Answer Some Questions about What It All Means
I posed some questions regarding this upcoming shift to some individuals and companies that are in the Facebook application space, developers and “entrepreneurs.” Their responses provide an in-depth view of the Facebook application landscape as it appears today, and where it may be heading.
Click the questions to see the responses »
Chris Treadaway (Lasso): “I think the fate of Static FBML is that it’s about to be extinct, although it may take more time than people think for that to ultimately happen.”
Dominic DiMarco (Room 214): “Although the FBML engine will not be improved, it is not going away anytime in the foreseeable future. Will FBML apps die someday? Probably… but not for a while.”
Joanna Carrero (Likeable): “Nowhere in Facebook’s Developer Roadmap does it say that they are getting rid of the Static FBML application. I believe that the Static FBML application will be around for a long time.”
Tommy Inglis (BrandCraft Inc.): “Facebook has stated that applications that are currently developed with FBML will be grandfathered in and allowed to operate as-is, developers are just losing the ability to create new FBML applications. The future of Static FBML may be a limited ability to place images, texts, and links. Or it be completely eliminated — we just don’t know.”
David Turner (Brandglue): “There’s a large enough install base that it will stick around. There might be an internal implementation change here on Facebook’s side, but not anything that is apparent to users. It will still continue to be a valued addition for Pages. If Facebook were to get rid of Static FBML, it would be because the developer community has really taken charge with creating applications for Page admins to enhance their Page.”
The Takeaway: Everyone agrees that Static FBML will be around for some time to come. Besides the usual outrage that accompanies almost any signficant change Facebook makes, removing Static FBML custom tabs would eliminate an entire ecosystem of hobbyist coders and FBML entrepreneurs, as well as thousands of small-business Pages.
However, I would imagine that at the time Facebook terminates the ability to create FBML applications it may also discontinue any new installations of the Static FBML application. The most popular FBML tags (fb:comment, fb:visible-to-connection, fb:share-button, fb:swf, fb:mp3) would remain. Users who already have the application installed could continue to use it, but Page admins could no longer add it to their Pages.
Alternately, Facebook might provide an application that, like Static FBML, is easy to use and that allows the implementation of iFrames, something hinted at when they say “We will begin supporting IFrames for Page tabs in the next few months.” Or they may keep the “Static FBML” moniker, although the name would no longer reflect the application.
To avoid drama, Facebook may simply allow FBML to wither away from attrition and be made irrelevant by cool new features and functionality available only via iFrames and XFBML.
Joanna Carrero (Likeable): “This switch will make FB run more quickly and smoothly because the code will be housed on a 3rd party server. Switching to iFrames will also allow users to view customized tabs on their mobile devices. Plus, developers will be able to code a single page with multiple things to “like.” For example: a company with multiple products on a single page can place a “like” button next to each individual item.”
Hazel Grace Dircksen (Socialbees): “Facebook Social Plugins. Social Plugins will allow Facebook to dramatically grow their data collection and become even more valuable to advertisers. Facebook’s move to deprecate some FBML and increase the importance of iFrames may indicate the beginning of a trend towards encouraging more organizations to build Facebook into their own websites, rather than building their own “websites” into Facebook Pages.”
Mary McKnight (Sacrilicious): “The unification of the product platform tools. Facebook has always said they wanted to unify the development platform tools and this is one way to bring some continuity to developing for Facebook across pages and applications.”
Tommy Inglis (BrandCraft Inc.): “To lessen the server load on Facebook. Within in the last year there has been a massive increase in custom tabs. A majority of these tabs are created with Static FBML and not only is Facebook hosting the code for these tabs, but also the added server load that is created from applications calling in FBML functionality.”
Dominic DiMarco (Room 214): “At some high-level within the Fb organization a decision had to be made between 2 approximately equal technologies, FBML and iFrames. I’d guess that the decision was based upon data: What percentage of apps used FBML vs iFrame? Which were the biggest, most popular Facebook apps using iFrames?”
Zach Berke (Exygy): “My guess is that it’s for cleanliness and to protect brand. I think Facebook saw what happened on MySpace right before its decline: bling and blinking text on everyone’s page, dancing squirrels, huge load times, etc. I think they are removing FBML in an effort to slow the “blingification” of the Facebook platform.”
David Turner (Brandglue): “There’s a huge taxation on Facebook’s side to rewrite every FBML request with unique identifiers. It’s a great idea, but not really an efficient practice. They’re trying to find a way to be consistent and minimize variations on the similar things. Lower the number of moving parts, increase efficiencies.”
Takeaway: The consensus appears to be that Facebook is making the transition away from FBML to iFrames in order to:
- Reduce load on their servers, as iFramed content will be hosted on external servers;
- Simplify and unify the development platform tools, so that Facebook apps speak the “language of the Web” and not their own proprietary language;
- Possibly to up the quality of custom tabs by weeding out amateur coders who may be unable to make the transition to creating Facebook applications, and working in a deeper way with Web programming, resulting in custom tabs being developed by professionals;
- Encourage the use of the Open Graph Protocol and Social Plugins.
Tommy Inglis (BrandCraft Inc.): “Yes, I hope to see this move improve the speed and load time for Facebook and applications.”
David Ginsburg (Hector Solutions): “There’s a positive impact on a macro scale by having uniform standards across the Facebook platform. The negative will be the impact on those small biz owners/entrepreneurs who now have to find a 3rd party solution for their Pages and absorb the cost of adding them.”
Chris Treadaway (Lasso): “Long term, yes for both Facebook and for developers. Short-term, it causes a lot of ambiguity. Let’s face it, Facebook handles these inevitable migrations like a startup would, not like a large tech company. Information is scarce and timelines are vague. That causes a lot of trouble for people who build their own pages, apps, etc., for a richer and more branded experience inside the Facebook Page. It also makes Facebook initiatives more expensive for large companies because a lot of apps will be rewritten.”
Mary McKnight (Sacrilicious): “Definitely! It will give me more flexibility. Facebook limited us severely in FBML and FBJS. If they switch back to the use of iframes, so much more is technically possible. And, I would imagine, Facebook likes to keep its developer network happy. However, in moving to iFrames Facebook will have some answering to do on the SEO implications of this move.”
Dominic DiMarco (Room 214): “It’s a good move for the Facebook Platform IF they continue simplifying and enhancing the platform for developers. […] So long as Facebook has thought out this decision and will dedicate their developer resources to enhancing functionality for iframes (via XFBML & FBJS) a single page rendering implementation is a win for developers.”
Justyn Howard (Sprout Social): “I do think the move to iFrames will make things simpler for us, but also takes away some of the native FB functionality which will have to be addressed somehow.”
David Turner (Brandglue): “I do. As a developer with both an FBML-based and iFrame-based application, having to learn one way to do things is a huge plus.”
Joanna Carrero (Likeable): “Overall, it is a good move, because Facebook will be able to work more smoothly and mobile users will be able to view customizable pages. This will allow for more interactivity across devices. However, this also completely eradicates the hobbyist coder. Unless you are working with someone like Likeable or some others, it will be very difficult for the little guy to keep up.”
Takeaway: The consensus is a pretty unambiguous YES. The developers see:
- Improved Facebook application performance;
- Uniform Standards;
- Increased options and flexibility for developers;
- A deeper realization of Facebook as a Web platform, with better integration with CSS, HTML, PHP and MySQL, and other mature Web technologies;
- Improved ease of use, with a reduction in required programming languages
- Better integration across devices, especially mobile devices;
The enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the SEO implications of moving to iFramed content, content which may not be seen by search engines as part of the page. Google advises against using iframed content, so there is the possibility that search rankings for your custom tabs may be compromised by the move to iframes, as well as “link juice” passed by Facebook Pages.
There is also a concern about Facebook providing clear guidelines and documentation to developers. Also, this change will disrupt the large community of amateur coders and entrepreneurs who thrived in the simplicity of FBML tags and basic HTML.
Tommy Inglis (BrandCraft Inc.): “First, ditch Static FBML and learn how to create a page/application with the Facebook Developer Application. Start simple and build your knowledge through trial and error. Long hours and hard work will be the biggest pay off.”
Chris Treadaway (Lasso): “Developers need to stay on top of updates from Facebook and internalize what announcements will mean. The best developers will have a clear understanding of how the technology change creates new opportunities.”
Dominic DiMarco (Room 214): “This evolution is just one change in a sea of evolutionary changes within the overall FB ecosystem. Facebook is constantly evolving. Developers are playing with Facebook’s toys, in their sandbox and must do so according to their rules. Facebook changes so often (sometimes subtlety, sometimes massively), if you’re not dedicating some non-trivial amount of time to keeping abreast of changes, you’d best save yourself (and your clients) the frustration.”
Nathan Latka (Fan Page Factory): “Iframes will present change and new opportunities to these entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in upfront learning. If you understand the deeply rooted, psychological science behind why Facebook works from a marketing, branding, and business-building perspective, you set yourself up to be a smashing success no matter what changes are implemented.”
Bill Warren (Fan Page Help Desk): “Developers and others in the FB fanpage support business should do three things: 1) Gain better access to the Facebook developer roadmap and develop a better understanding of the macro-level business environment for fanpage clients; 2) Remember that over the long term, successful business stay focused on doing the things they do best; 3) Manage the costs associated with unexpected and unfunded service work as it arises from a continuing stream of temporary platform instability, issues, bugs and upgrades from FB.”
Contributors to the Q & A
Zach Berke is founder and CEO of Exygy, a San Francisco company that develops custom applications for Web, mobile, APIs, WordPress, Facebook, and more, for startups, social-venture and corporate clients. Prior to joining exygy, Zach was responsible for the development of high-traffic, public-facing websites for the FORTUNE Magazine Business Leader Council.
Joanna Carrero is Creative Chief at Likeable, a social media marketing agency leveraging social media to create more transparent, responsive and ultimately more likeable companies, organizations and governments. Joanna has managed the creative process behind social media marketing for clients like 1-800-FLOWERS, Cumberland Farms, Omaha Steaks, UNO, Stride Rite, and Entenmann’s.
Hazel Grace Dircksen has been using and working on social networking sites for the past 8 years from Friendster to Facebook and everything in between. She founded the Facebook services company, Socialbees, after being an official Facebook Platform launch partner and debuting her first application at Facebook’s F8 conference in 2007.
David Ginsburg is Hector’s chief strategist and tactician, as well as a Social Media geek who doesn’t understand why everyone isn’t spending 16 hours per day participating in the Social Web. His background in radio promotion and programming provided a strong foundation in how to build, engage and sustain an audience-exactly what marketers everywhere are trying to do with Social Media.
Tommy Inglis is responsible for research and development at BrandCraft Inc., a social media design and development think tank.
Nathan Latka is known as “The College Entrepreneur.” He has created a number of social-media-related businesses. After getting several requests for “fan pages” he taught himself FBML and now works with his community at Fan Page Factory providing customized fan pages to his “clients” (Nathan prefers to call them family).
Mary McKnight is the Consumer Marketing Director at Where.com, a leading mobile ad network. She has formerly served as an Online Marketing Director for an EMI Music label and her consulting company, Sacrilicious Marketing, provides Facebook Development as well as reputation management and online marketing to celebrities, musical artists and consumer brands.
Chris Treadaway is Founder and CEO of Lasso, a local business marketing platform that is sold by partners at local newspapers, major technology companies, and major corporations. Previously, Chris was Group Product Manager of Web Strategy at Microsoft, where he was responsible for the company’s Web 2.0 marketing and messaging to developers. He is the co-author of Facebook Marketing An Hour a Day which was released by Sybex on May 3rd.
David Turner is the Technical Lead at BrandGlue, a social media consulting company that focuses on converting Facebook users into a listening audience for your brand. Intel, Mint.com, Kiva, 99designs, and the Washington Redskins love what we do for them.
Bill Warren is a writer and business owner. When he is not running the Custom Fan Page Help Center, he builds custom fanpages for a few of his friends and fans.
If you would like to share your thoughts, speculations or opinions on Facebook’s recently announced changes, please comment below!