Facebook Lite: thanks, but no apps

Facebook has made a potentially risky choice in designing Lite, the simpler version of its social network that is generating much buzz: Lite doesn't run any of the tens of thousands of external applications built for Facebook's main site.

While Lite was originally intended for countries with low-bandwidth users, the site has gotten an initial round of endorsements from pundits and experts in the blogosphere now that it's available to Facebook members in the U.S.

Considering how U.S. Internet users readily embrace simple online services that they find useful, such as Google and Twitter, it will be interesting to see what percentage of Facebook members will adopt Lite as their preferred Facebook site.

If it's a sizeable chunk, Facebook may have to consider opening Lite to the third-party applications, so that developers don't lose access to a big segment of Facebook users.

The question is whether it will be possible to maintain Lite's appeal as a stripped-down version of Facebook if it's tweaked to support external applications. A compromise solution might be to create a separate application platform for Lite.

What would seem unlikely would be to shut out developers entirely from Lite, considering how much Facebook credits them with helping the regular site grow in popularity in the past two years.

More than 1 million developers and entrepreneurs from more than 180 countries have created about 350,000 active applications for Facebook, which has become the most popular social-networking site in the world.

Lite isn't entirely devoid of third-party ties. Lite does support Connect, the data portability technology that lets people use their previously created Facebook accounts to sign in to other Web sites.

"If a user is logged in to the Lite site, they can access Facebook Connect sites across the Web," Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich said via e-mail. "So if you are logged into the Lite site, you can access Connect sites as normal."

Of course, Facebook Connect, generally available since December 2008, is but a small part of the Facebook developer story, having been implemented in some 15,000 Web sites, devices and applications.

"We are evaluating Lite's performance now, and are considering incorporating more [application development] Platform elements in the future," she said.

In the meantime having a version of Facebook without third-party applications may be a revealing test of how attached members truly are to these programs.

According to Facebook, Lite could help attract new users. "We have found that people who are new to Facebook tend to be most interested in a simpler experience, and focus on establishing their network of friends and communicating with them by writing on their walls, sending messages, and looking at pictures. We have introduced the Lite site with these new users in mind," the company said in a statement. Lite lets people post and share videos, photos and events, as well as exchange one-on-one messages.

What Lite does seem to be doing is beginning to provoke a spirited discussion among Facebook officials, their throngs of third-party developers and the 250 million-strong user base, that will only grow louder as it rolls out to all users in the coming days.

Lite's impact could be rather heavy.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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