Facebooks unveils Instagram Lite, developed by Tel Aviv team

Facebook said Tuesday it has started to test a new, lightweight version of its popular Instagram App, with improved speed, performance, and responsiveness while using less data, to target users in emerging markets where network connectivity is unstable and speeds can be slow.

Instagram Lite, the new version of the app for Android systems, is being developed by the social media giant’s technology team in Tel Aviv, which was also responsible for leading the product development of the Facebook Lite feature — the lightweight version of the regular Facebook app for cellphones, used today by millions of users worldwide.

Facebook’s R&D hub in Tel Aviv, set up in 2013, today employs a few hundred workers locally and is the second-largest strategic development center for the social media giant after the US, Tzach Hadar, director of Product Management for Lite interfaces and Tel Aviv tech site lead, said at a virtual meeting with reporters.

Instagram Lite is less than 2MB, compared to 32MB for the regular app, which makes it fast to install and quick to load. It is designed to offer the core features of the original Instagram app for millions of users in emerging markets, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Philippines, Egypt and Turkey, who cannot access the original Instagram experience as they don’t have access to high-speed Wi-Fi internet and are reliant on mobile connections that typically don’t go above 2G or 3G, explained Michelle Lourie, product manager of Instagram Lite.

Tel Aviv team has led the development of Facebook’s Instagram Lite app (Facebook)

Emerging markets will account for over 90% of new mobile subscribers globally, Facebook said in a statement.

The Lite version will allow the Instagram experience to remain fast and reliable for more people, irrespective of the device, platform and network they are on, the statement said.

“Instagram Lite builds on the work we did for Facebook Lite in Tel Aviv,” said Hadar. “We took many of the lessons learned and technologies developed while we were creating Facebook Lite and applied them to Instagram Lite, together with our basic premise to leave no one behind.”

Facebook started testing Instagram Lite last month with a small group of users in Southeast Asia, said Lourie, “and the feedback has been positive.” The rollout of the app will continue this year, moving to North Africa and South America and then globally in the coming months,” she said.

“We want to bring Instagram to all those who cannot use it today” because of slow networks, loading failures and limited and expensive data packages, she said.

The Tel Aviv team started working on the project at the start of this year, said Gal Zellermayer, software engineering manager for Instagram Lite.

“We took the same principles of Facebook Lite and applied it to Instagram Lite,” he said, shifting most of the code from being hosted on the user’s device to an outside Facebook server. This keeps the app smaller and the processing activity and the memory are not on the user’s device, he said. The key challenge was to maintain the quality and “craft” of the original app, he added.

Zellermayer also talked about the challenges the Tel Aviv team faced in its development work amid lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

An image of an Instagram user (Facebook)

“Building a product across several time zones is always a challenge and we were used to it before. But when COVID-19 hit, it completely changed how we had to approach working on Instagram Lite,” he said. “There was no way of meeting in person — some of the best ideas come from getting everyone in a room. So, we had to improvise: put whiteboards in our houses” and set up a virtual “operations room” to do all the brainstorming remotely.

Additionally, until the pandemic, the team had relied on in-person meetings to do its user research. “This is where we meet with groups of people who test our apps and ask them questions about their experience,” said Zellermayer. “We had to move these meetings virtually too and it was difficult not being able to sit next to a person and ask them to show you what issues they have or what they like about the app.”

The research team at Facebook managed to do this research from afar, he said, and team members got cheaper phones and checked the workings of the new app on these phones.

Facebook Lite was also developed by the Tel Aviv team for users in areas with slow internet connections, or with low-end devices or limited internet packages. The software uses less data, installs fast, loads quickly and works on all types of Androids, supporting all networks including 2G.

The team in Tel Aviv works on key projects for the social media giant, said Hadar, including the “digital wallet” initiative and the “Express Wi-Fi” project — a global internet connectivity initiative of Facebook that partners with mobile network operators and internet service providers to provide internet access via public Wi-Fi hotspots that, according to Facebook, are fast, affordable and reliable.

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Written by Aakash Malu


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