What’s the future of React Native? And why does Facebook care?
A Story of Facebook’s Mobile Ambition
Mark Zuckerberg admits on Sep. 11, 2012 the biggest mistake Facebook has made as a company: it bet too much on HTML5.
At the time, the Facebook App was still running as a Web App on smartphones. As a company, Facebook had invested heavily in Web App technologies as the foundation of its mobile future.
In the four years since the inception of smartphones and App Stores in 2007-08, both hardware and mobile development frameworks had rapidly evolved and matured.
Facebook’s Web App approach for mobile users was quickly falling behind in capabilities and features available in natively developed mobile apps. Plus, it became evident that a smartphone was the ultimate device for a social experience like Facebook.
But to deliver what users wanted, Facebook would have to ‘go native’ with its app and submit to the rules and regulations of Apple’s AppStore and Google Play store.
Did Facebook want to stake its future to the controls of Apple and Google with their respective AppStore and Play store?
No, but it had to begrudgingly at that time. Thus out of desperation, Facebook embarked on a series of projects to control its mobile destiny while mitigating rivals Apple and Google.
Facebook’s Mobile Inspirations
Introduced in 2008, Facebook Login remains one of Facebook’s most successful footholds within the Web space initially, and later in Mobile space. The first of its kind, Facebook allowed for a syndicated Login that web and mobile app developers could use to authenticate users in their applications. To this day, Login offers Facebook a trove of user data and behavior intelligence on the web and mobile.
Mobile OS – Attempt #1
In the years following Facebook’s mea culpa of 2012, there were unsubstantiated reports that the company had started a project to create its own mobile operating system.
However, after the debacle that Amazon suffered from its Fire Phone in the 2014-15 timeframe, the rumors ceased, and presumably, the project was quietly shelved.
In 2013, Facebook acquired Parse, a mobile backend-as-a-service (BaaS) company. Parse was a leading mobile application platform company, used by nearly 100,000 apps, a significant fraction of the market at that time.
Coupled with Facebook Login, Parse entrenched Facebook into the front and back end of mobile apps, extracting much-needed user data, and behavior intelligence to support Facebook’s Ad business.
Stealth Project: Oxygen
While Login and Parse were relatively successful, Facebook was still beholden to Apple and Google’s control of App distribution. While Apple continued to entrench its ecosystem, Android remained open-source and far more distributed.
Thus Facebook ran a secret project, codenamed Oxygen, to create an alternative to Google’s Play store. This was an attempt to challenge Google’s monopoly in the Android app market. Unfortunately for Facebook, the project never really got commercial traction for various reasons.
Go Big, or Go Home!
Facebook realized that it needed something bolder if it were to remain competitive against Google, its main rival in the Ad business, and Apple, which controlled substantial user information.
The ideal solution, a competing mobile OS, was not going to be successful without prominent hardware manufacturers (think Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, LG, etc.,) jumping ship from Android – an increasingly unlikely possibility.
If head-to-head competition wasn’t feasible, perhaps an abstraction layer would help to neutralize the mobile OS duopoly.
Thus was born ReactJS, a UI Framework, initially announced in 2013, followed quickly by the more substantial React-Native program in 2015.
React-Native looked to be a win-win for Facebook and mobile app developers. It enabled developers to create Hybrid mobile applications that will run on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms from a single code base. For Facebook, an abstraction like React-Native would dampen the control iOS and Android exerted.
And thus React-Native came into being!
Thud! React-Native is released
The initial release of React-Native was met with unenthusiastic reception in the developer community. Like many first-generation products, plugins required to extend its functionality were missing, and the out-of-box functionality was pretty minimal.
Undaunted, Facebook went on a literal roadshow, spending considerable time and money to market the free, open-sourced React-Native platform for app developers.
Facebook’s extraordinary efforts garnered reasonable success. Solo developers in the proverbial garage to large companies like AirBnB and Udacity were developing apps on React-Native.
No match to Apple’s AppStore and Google’s PlayStore
Facebook was not able to have the same free rein that Google had on its users’ data from Android devices.
Apple tightened the screws on what a mobile app can and cannot glean about its user in whatever technology, React-Native or other, that an app is built on.
The shiny toy of React-Native had lost its luster to Facebook.
Few controversies rocked Facebook:
Facebook’s licensing practices, 2017
Facebook licensed React-Native under the “BSD + patents” license. In practical terms, the code was open for everyone to see and use but still copyrighted by Facebook. It also included a significant caveat: it’s open and free to use as long as you never sue Facebook for patent infringement.
When this caveat was exposed, a big roar erupted, none louder than in Silicon Valley, where valuations for mobile apps built on React Native dropped precipitously. No company would acquire a React-Native based App only to wrestle with Facebook patent attorneys.
Facebook finally relented and switched to the MIT licensing model, but only after losing significant mindshare and credibility.
Big departures – AirBnB & Udacity, 2018
About the time of the licensing uproar, two prominent advocates, AirBnB and Udacity, announced that they are moving away from React-Native after being big proponents of Facebook. Coincidence?
Privacy practices and Congressional testimony, 2019
Mark Zuckerberg testifying in the US Congress and Facebook coming under the EU’s strong oversight for its controversial privacy practices did not help the case of newer apps being created on React-Native.
Facebook slows down on React-Native
Thus by April of 2018, rumors started spinning that the entire React-Native team within Facebook was disbanded. This is not entirely true, and it appears there are still some remnants of a team to support internal React-Native projects.
However, commits to the project in GitHub leave a trail. The top Facebook GitHub contributors(IDs: javache, sahrens, mkonicek, nicklockwood, etc.,) all seem to abruptly stop their work on React-Native around April 2018.
And the underlying UI Framework, ReactJS, that powers React-Native also seems to be in transition within Facebook. Its longtime manager appears to have left Facebook in early 2019.
What’s the future for React-Native?
It is obvious that Facebook is no longer focused on React-Native. Many of the big supporters like AirBnb, Udacity, and others who were contributing their effort to React-Native have since dropped off.
It is anybody’s guess on whether and how React-Native will thrive (or survive) without a strong sponsor.
Facebook has officially announced that it is building a new operating system for its Ocular hardware and augmented reality glasses. It will be Facebook’s 3rd attempt at going directly against Android.
In any case, it is not React-Native that Facebook is betting on.
Verdict on React-Native
If you are starting a new mobile app development project, it is probably best to stay away from React-Native, given its unknown future. There are other well-supported and sponsored technologies out there to anchor your work.
If you already have a React-Native project, it might do well for you to prepare to migrate to an alternate technology before the latest iOS or Android feature is not available on React-Native.
In the end, the duopoly has (so far) survived Facebook’s valiant attempts at destabilization. Facebook wasn’t the first (Nokia, Blackberry, WindowsPhone, Fire, Tizen,…), and it won’t be the last (HarmonyOS).