Were you having difficulty accessing or using any of your favorite apps last week? If so, you weren’t alone. Millions of users all around the world were angrily messaging and Tweeting the creators of TikTok, Tinder, Soundcloud, Spotify, and several other universally-popular apps to complain that their functionality had disappeared, but they were venting their anger at the wrong people. The tech companies who developed those apps weren’t to blame for the sudden problems. Facebook was. A minor issue with the social media company’s software development kit turned into a huge headache for multiple companies and multiple users – possibly costing a fortune in lost revenue for the affected companies in the process.
We’ve all read stories about the extent of Facebook’s reach into our personal and professional lives. Many people have expressed concern about the amount of personal data that Mark Zuckerberg’s company knows about us, and how that data is handled. What the average consumer gives less thought to is the amount of Facebook software that’s become integral to the operation of dozens of unrelated but well-known apps. Without Facebook code, the apps would be unable to run on some platforms and some smartphones. When something goes wrong with that code – even if nothing has been changed by the people who coded the apps – it can have dire consequences.
The problem, which is understood only to have affected people trying to access apps and services using the iOS platform, was caused by a new Facebook release. Facebook underwent a minor behind-the-scenes update at the end of last week of the kind that it does periodically without causing any inconvenience to users, but this time something went wrong. The update was universal and so should have affected Android users and users of other platforms, but for unknown reasons only caused issues to those using Apple products. The bug was patched urgently and fixed the same day, but not before several hours had passed, and the complaints and customer services departments of several major apps found themselves overwhelmed by inquiries. Aside from the apps we mentioned at the beginning of this article, Pinterest, Google, Bumble, and Venmo all reported identical issues.
While Facebook accepted responsibility for the issue, they’ve yet to provide any further information as to how or why it happened other than to reassure users that the issue is now fixed and won’t reoccur. That may not provide much reassurance for the app developers who rely on them keeping their platforms and tools running smoothly. Facebook’s software development kit has been designed in a way that makes it almost impossible for any app to interact with Facebook without it, and so if developers want users to be able to log in to their products through Facebook, they have to make use of the kit. This is of enormous benefit to Facebook from a marketing point of view because it gives them access to yet another lucrative data set about the habits and interests of its users. The kit also allows marketing teams to monitor the effectiveness of a Facebook advertising campaign, so there’s also a net benefit to the coders and developers to make use of it. That’s all well and good, so long as the system remains online.
Before Facebook came up with a fix for the problem, some developers and programmers attempted to come up with a workaround from their end to no avail. It appears that because the update was pushed on Facebook’s server-side, it broke the connection between the apps and the software development kit. The update changed the response that the kit gives to the apps when an attempt to access them is made, and as the apps received an unfamiliar response from the software kit, they either aborted or crashed completely. Worryingly, some developers attempted to bypass that by re-coding their apps to side-step the software but found that they couldn’t do it. It seems that the software kit runs hidden code on launch, and nobody other than Facebook knows what that code contains.
It’s been a busy few weeks and months for Facebook on the coding and development side. Aside from creating their ‘Facebook casino’ UK slots blog page and a long-requested ‘dark mode,’ they’ve also introduced a Pinterest-like product and a new service in Facebook Messenger that allows couples to store romantic memories in a central ‘bank.’ Only the online slots games are expected to be a major money-maker for the platform, but the net benefit of any profits raised from that could be eliminated if they’re sued by unhappy app developers for lost profits. Every minute that subscription services like Tinder are offline, they lose money. App developers don’t want to be gambling like the company’s online slots players are when it comes to knowing that their money is safe, and that the stability of the service that Facebook has pushed upon them can be trusted.
As of the time of writing, Apple hadn’t responded to requests for comments about why the apps were so badly affected on iOS when they didn’t go down on Android. The obvious conclusion to reach is that there’s a coding issue with iOS that doesn’t apply to Android, and makes apps run through Apple’s platform more vulnerable than apps run through Android, but that’s just conjecture until more substantial information can be gleaned. It’s likely that Apple has so far declined to comment on the outage because they’re still attempting to work out what went on themselves.
Having had the potential pitfalls of using Facebook’s tools highlighted to them in such a dramatic matter, developers may rethink the way they build apps for integration with social media platforms in the future. It’s one thing to integrate code from a third party, but it’s quite another to allow that third party code to have as much sway over the user experience as your own app does – and that appears to have been the cause of the issue on this occasion. As has so often been the case in recent years, Facebook is now in defense mode when it comes to public relations and perception, and developers are looking at their software with a renewed sense of suspicion.