How Israel and Facebook are working together to connect the world

Facebook Lite and other apps are making technology accessible to developing countries

Yuval Kesten. director of engineering and Facebook Lite, speaks to the press at Facebook's Tel Aviv Engineering Hub. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Yuval Kesten. director of engineering and Facebook Lite, speaks to the press at Facebook's Tel Aviv Engineering Hub.
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
In the Western world and certainly in the Start-Up Nation of Israel, being “connected” online is as common as a cup of coffee. But in developing countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China, for example – outdated devices and weak or expensive data networks often keep people offline.
According to Facebook’s Maayan Sarig, Israel in general and Facebook in particular are at the forefront of bringing data to the masses.
At a briefing on Monday, Sarig explained to a group of reporters how the company’s invention of Facebook Lite for low-speed connections and low-spec phones is an only-in-Israel creation that is making waves in emerging markets, which will account for more than 90% of mobile subscribers globally by 2020.
In many of these developing economies, mobile networks can be slow and smartphones have limited processing power.
The first lower bandwidth version of Facebook originated in 2009 for web, but only lasted eight months before it was discontinued. However, it was reintroduced in 2015. The newer incarnation featured a more blocky, seemingly dated design and interface with larger icons, but it was still perfectly functional, and served much of the same functions as the regular Facebook app.
Facebook Lite functions on a 2G network, according to Tazach Hadar, director of project management for Facebook. In emerging markets, 2G networks are still the most popular. Even if 3G networks exist, they tend to be slow and have many problems with speed and connectivity in these areas.
When it comes to data in these markets, cost is a significant issue.
“Data is really, really, really expensive,” Hadar emphasized.
He provided an example of a village in South Africa that had fast Internet but barely anyone could afford to connect, with some people having to decide whether to eat lunch or go online.
“Most people in emerging markets consider app size when downloading,” said Dekel Naar, who works for Facebook as a software engineer, and worked on Facebook Lite. He said that when “lightening an app,” less is more, because it can provide a better download experience in low connectivity areas.
Harder downloads are one of the biggest barriers to new users. And, in addition, a smaller app size helps to address the single largest reason for discontinuation of Facebook among users: lack of storage. This often comes when users have 200MB of space or less left on their device.
This meant excluding many features, such as sound and Facebook Live.
When Facebook Lite was first released, “people said it looked like it was made 10 years ago,” said Facebook Lite engineering director Yuval Kesten. “To be honest, we agreed with them. So, we worked on it.
“We want to set a high bar for Lite users,” he continued. “Easy, fast and delightful. We do it in a tailored and optimized experience.”
Facebook Lite was the first of its kind. Since then, it has been followed by Facebook Messenger Lite and Skype Lite. There is even an Instagram Lite currently in the testing phase.
Other social companies, such as Twitter, are likewise putting out lite apps of their own.
Why was Facebook Lite developed in Israel?
Sarig said simply because Israel is the Start-Up Nation.
She explained that Israel currently has 1,500 digital companies and that the ecosystem and culture has allowed larger companies like Facebook to simply buy start-ups and incorporate their teams and offices into theirs.
Facebook has largely resisted this trend.
“Originally, Facebook would buy start-ups and send them all to Menlo Park,” explained Hadar. “But when they bought Onavo in 2013, they decided to keep them here. Unlike hubs, these start-ups like Onavo have established teams who are used to solving problems themselves.”
This really sets them apart and allows them to innovate, he said, noting that some Onavo team members were behind Facebook Lite.
“Israel is a world leader in all areas of tech,” said Sarig. “Israel is the only country in the Middle East with no oil. No oil, no soil, no water. What do you do? You innovate.”