Africa’s Poor Internet Service Helped make the Facebook Android App Better

In the past year, Facebook’s app has shrunk how much space it takes up on Android devices by 65%. Its data consumption is half what it was, as is the load time when you start up the app.

This would have not be possible if not for Africa.

Last year, a team of Facebook engineers and product designers flew to Africa and bought several Android phones locally to see how Facebook worked there. Not very well, it turned out: “The combination of an intermittent, low-bandwidth network connection and a lack of memory space on the devices resulted in slow load times and constant crashes. We even burned through our monthly data plans in 40 minutes,” Alex Sourov, a Facebook engineer, writes in a post on Facebook’s engineering blog.

The team returned to their offices in California, Seattle and London, and worked on improving the app for everyone. “We realized that data is extremely expensive in emerging markets, and purchasing more data is often a laborious process. Thus, there needed to be a concerted effort to reduce data consumption within the Facebook app,” writes Sourov. The team changed the format it uses for photos, stopped loading full images unless asked to, and tweaked other fiddly bits to cut data use by 50%. The team also cut the number of image-load failures by 90%.

One way in which they improved it was that News Feed has been made to load faster. In order to rapidly display cached content on poor networks, facebook fetches stories earlier in the process to allow more time to set up connections and download News Feed. The cold start path has been automated to ensure that they prevent further regressions.

Many of us in this developing markets suffer from lack of Good internet connection making most of our Apps slow and poor to use. It is important for developers to travel to emerging markets and test on mobile performance, data efficiency, networking reliability, and application size for emerging markets. 

That’s good for new users with cheaper phones on unreliable networks in poor countries. It is also good for everybody else. And it is good for business.