Hillel's Tech Corner: Facebook Lite, built end-to-end in Israel

Like most multinationals in the technology sector, Facebook has a significant presence here in Israel, but it doesn’t end there.

Facebook symbol  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Facebook symbol
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I started writing this column, we decided that I would focus on impact, or companies and products that are built in Israel and are making the world a better place. I have to be honest, I never imagined that Facebook, the mighty Facebook, would ever appear in this column. This won’t be the first or last time that I would be wrong.
Like most multinationals in the technology sector, Facebook has a significant presence here in Israel, but it doesn’t end there. What Facebook is building in this tiny country is a product that is used by hundreds of millions of people across many emerging markets where connectivity is limited on the one hand, but the importance of being connected is a real staple of daily life on the other.
I am talking about Facebook Lite, a stripped down version of Facebook that launched in 2015, and that only weighs approximately 2MB, so it is easy to install on your phone even with slow Internet. As compared to the regular Facebook app, Facebook Lite is about 97% lighter. According to studies, in emerging markets, 70% of users consider an app’s size before downloading it.
Additionally, being as many of the things we take for granted such as Wifi, 4G, or even 3G are not available in many of these locations where even viewing an image on Facebook when its full resolution might take a few minutes, as opposed to the split second it takes us. Facebook Lite lowers the resolution of media so things are quicker to load.
Again, putting aside whatever you think of Facebook, we are talking about a platform on a scale the likes of which humanity has never known. Billions of monthly users access this company’s products including Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram on a regular basis. With that kind of scale, Facebook felt a responsibility to not limit access to its products to people with strong Internet access, and that is how Facebook Lite came to be.
How important is this product to the company and how central is Israel in building it?
In Tel Aviv, Facebook has a team of 90 engineers all focused on Facebook Lite, and the product is built end-to-end in Israel.

Lite, the app, was originally available only on Android, for obvious reasons, being as Android is the platform of choice in emerging markets. iPhones are usually out of budget, which also means that people are using lower-end phones, another thing that Facebook Lite addresses, as it works across all phones, not only high-end flagships.
It also works on older phones that are no longer supported by the main Facebook app. However, today, the app is available across both platforms. It is available in every country on Earth for Android users and for iOS users as of 2017, in 13 countries, so anyone can use it, not only people in emerging markets. The team also launched Stories for Facebook Lite in 2018.
TO NAME one more example of how Facebook Lite is different, it doesn’t auto-play videos, which again, would cannibalize people’s very limited Internet connections in emerging markets.
As far as the core functionality of Facebook, Facebook Lite is almost identical to the regular Facebook app. You can still like and comment on posts, visit profiles, post your status, and do everything else you would normally do on Facebook.
The interface of Facebook Lite is a bit reminiscent of what things used to look like back in the era of Nokia and BlackBerry, with large buttons and a loading bar, but again, given the target audience of this app, it makes sense and fills a very strong need.
The focus of the team in Tel Aviv is the user experience and ensuring that even though Facebook Lite is a totally different app, it behaves in a similar manner to the main Facebook app, which people are familiar with by now.
So why Tel Aviv? As an executive told me, the local Facebook team is focused on bringing more connectivity to the world, specifically to regions that are less connected, so Facebook Lite fits right in.
As the mobile revolution continues to grow, we in the Western world are spending more and more time on our mobile devices and depend on them for things like communication, photography, productivity and more. Facebook recognized this phenomenon years ago as they transitioned the entire company to a mobile-first philosophy.
The team in Tel Aviv is taking that philosophy one step further to markets in which the mobile device is not only increasing in popularity. It is in many instances the only device people own, so the dependency is even more substantial.
If Facebook Lite continues to gain adoption the way it has until today, Mark Zuckerberg’s plan of connecting every human being on Earth is really not that far off.
In a column focused on impact technology, we have written a lot about obvious topics such as cancer research, diabetes, mental health and more. While you might not have expected to read about Facebook here, billions of users who can now stay connected thanks to a mobile app which now has the potential to create an impact not many others can.