Making sense of Facebook's new App Center

The new Facebook App Center announced this week is something of a hybrid: It’s part app store, part recommendation engine—and completely an extension of the company’s efforts to ensure that even when you’re not Facebooking, you’re still tied to the world’s largest social network.

Although the App Center—to be launched sometime in the “coming weeks”—will feature the usual roster of Web-based Facebook games and applications, the new service will also include mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. But not just any mobile apps: Only “high quality” offerings with “high app ratings and a low negative feedback rate” will be listed in the center, Facebook says.

Over time, that could result in a stronger slate of apps for mobile users.

“I don’t think the (mobile) experience is going to change immediately,” said Jake Wengroff, Global Director of Social Media Strategy and Research for Frost & Sullivan, an industry analytics firm. “I think over time as developers rely on Facebook insights, they’re going to improve and tinker to provide a stronger experience to users.”

So how will Facebook App Center work? That can be explained by showing who will be affected:

Mobile users: For iOS and Android users, the Facebook App Center will function mostly as a guide: If they like the offerings available, they can click on an Install button, but they’ll be automatically transferred to either Apple’s App Store or Android’s Google Play—depending on the device in use—to actually download and install the app.

Even if they don’t use the App Center, however, mobile users might see an increasing number of their apps use the “single sign-on” Facebook login feature—a required feature of any offering listed in the App Center. (The feature lets users sign their username and password into the mobile Facebook app—every other app on the device that connects to Facebook then automatically logs into the network when opened.) That should provide a treasure trove of data to…

App makers: Developers won’t just be judged by how well users respond to their apps. Facebook will make detailed analytic data available—including the ratings, but also information on how customers actually use the app—to help developers understand why they’re succeeding or failing.

“It’s a service for developers, because Facebook obviously now has so much rich data which it can provide back to developers about what apps work, which don’t work, and how apps are being used,” Wengroff said.

That will be a boon to developers, Wengroff said, but also to…

Facebook: Facebook sells plenty of ads in its Web incarnation; those don’t appear in phone and tablet apps however. That’s been a problem, because Facebook users are mostly using the service in its mobile form. The App Center lets the company more fully engage its existing customers.

In its App Center Tutorial for mobile developers, Facebook makes it clear that it isn’t competing with Apple or Google, but complementing them: “The App Center links to mobile app marketplaces,” the company says, “and is designed to drive growth for great social apps on iOS, Android and the mobile Web.”

Of course, not all Facebook users are connecting with friends on their iPhone. There’s also…

Web-based Facebook users: Mostly, they’ll get the chance to spend more money. Until now, users only spent money for in-app purchases for otherwise-free Facebook-based games and applications like Farmville and other Zynga games. In the new Facebook App Center, there will be paid apps—customers will pay one flat fee upfront. (Facebook is letting developers sign up for a beta of the paid app program.)

Beyond the promised “coming weeks” timeframe, Facebook hasn’t said precisely when the new App Center will make its debut. However, it has promised that developers who submit their apps for review by May 18 will given priority in the center’s listings.

[Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia.]

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