Facebook says that hundreds of online companies have adopted its plan to let mobile apps operate more like the world wide web, seamlessly linking together in much the same way that pages do inside your web browser.
According to Facebook’s Vijay Shankar, these companies have published over 3 billion “App Links” to the net, exposing what are essentially addresses for particular items and widgets that appear inside smartphone and tablet apps. Just as each page on the web has its own “URL,” each page inside an app can potentially have its own App Link. Using these links, apps can directly tie into each together. Click on a App Link inside a smartphone service like Spotify, and you can instantly open a particular page inside another app like Songkick.
Facebook designed the standard that defines these links, and in April, the company shared the standard with the rest of the world, encouraging others to adopt it. The ultimate aim, says Shankar, the product manager who oversees the App Links project at Facebook, is to make mobile apps easier to use—to let you more readily move between them. “Our main goal is to help build the fabric of the mobile ecosystem, similar to the way the web works today,” he explained during a roundtable with reporters on Thursday morning in San Francisco.
But this is also an effort to facilitate mobile advertising—something that Facebook is enormously interested in. Ads are its main source of revenue. If apps can more easily link together, ads can more easily send users from app to app. If an ad for the ecommerce app Fancy commerce service appears inside the Facebook app and it includes an app link, Shakar pointed out, you can instantly move to a page inside the Fancy app where you can buy something like a chair or a clock.
The App Links project is part of larger movement to transform smartphone and tablet apps into things that behave more like webpages. Google and Twitter offer competing “deep link” standards, called App Indexing and App Cards, and companies like a San Francisco startup Famo.us are building tools that allow companies and coders to create viable apps using the same standard technologies that run inside web browsers. This would potentially allow the same app code to run on any device—from iPhones to Windows Phones—but it would also allow apps to more easily link together and share information.
One of the problems with mobile apps today, says Famo.us CEO Steve Newcomb, is that you can’t search them the way you can search stuff on the web. “There’s no way to crawl the content,” he says. Efforts like Famo.us and App Links could change this.
Facebook’s Shakar declined to say how extensively Facebook is making use of App Links today. But he did indicate that the company is using the technology on some level. Certainly, three billion links published by hundreds of companies is a nice start for this ambitious effort, but the project still has a long way to go. The good ol’ world wide web now spans many trillions of addresses.