Will Facebook's 'Project Spartan' Take A Bite Out Of Apple?

With 200 million iOS devices sold, 14 billion downloads of the 425,000 available apps, 10 billion iTunes downloads and a new digital bookstore, Apple is the dominant player in the mobile world.

Apple’s OS has been tightly controlled, but at least one competitor is looking to challenge that.

Enter Facebook, a newcomer to the mobile app department but certainly not to the web. With more than 700 million active users, it’s clear that the social media giant has a solid grip on satisfying consumers’ online wishes - its users spend more than 8 billion minutes on the social network service daily, and more of those minutes are being spent through mobile web devices. While they’re undoubtedly using the devices’ web capabilities, more often than not they’re utilizing apps, which offer convenience, entertainment and that niche appeal.

Indeed, it appears that Facebook is betting that mobile applications will be more profitable than the mobile web. Given that research firm IDC predicts mobile applications will generate more than $35 billion by 2014, according to an article from Bloomberg Businessweek, this seems like a safe bet.

Facebook is looking to capitalize on the skyrocketing growth rate of mobile application use by developing an iOS-optimized mobile web platform that bypasses Apple’s program development requirements.

Its latest innovation, an HTML-5 web platform dubbed Project Spartan, will make Facebook competitive with Apple’s App Store, or so the execs and 80 developers working on the project hope.

But will Mark Zuckerberg’s King Leonidas prevail against Steve Jobs’ Xerxes in the mobile app arena?

Project Spartan will enable users to access a slick, HTML version of Facebook directly through Safari instead of having to get the app from Apple. Facebook will be able to wrestle control of the platform from Apple but still deliver its content to the more than 160 million iOS devices its current and potential users won’t put down.

TechLand’s Giles Turnbull says Facebook also will be able to sell apps if the project is a success. Some apps to be released soon include a photo-sharing app, games and news apps.

“If it can get enough people using an iOS-optimized website, it can use that to sell them stuff too,” Turnbull writes. “It can sell apps that work within its web platform (as opposed to apps that have to approved by Apple first). Of course, these secondary apps wouldn't appear on an iOS user's home screen. They'd only show up once Facebook was opened inside Safari. But being hidden behind a Facebook icon doesn't have to be a problem - it certainly wasn't for the makers of Farmville.”

While you might think Apple would take offense to this challenge of its mobile software power position, TechCrunch’s MG Siegler suggests that it actually supports Facebook’s endeavor -- because it’s not threatened.

“Apple knows about Project Spartan, and is believed to even be lending some minor support to the project,” Siegler writes. “Why do that for a project that ultimately hopes to usurp the native App Store and Apple payment model? Because Apple is not afraid of it at all, we’ve heard. The likelihood users would choose these over a native iPhone app right now, is laughable.”

Gigaom’s Darrell Etherington adds that Facebook also has to provide a financial incentive for developers to switch from the profitable App Store.

“To prove a viable alternative in the long run, Facebook will have to either offer a better value proposition to devs (by giving them a bigger cut) or show that developers can reach more users than they do with native offerings.”

Facebook has its work cut out for it if it plans to take a bite out of Apple.