Another day, another feature being tested at Facebook. This time around, it looks like the company is working on a seriously improved in-app browser.
Here’s the old one that most people are used to seeing:
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And here’s the new one:
— Henry Wilmer (@HenryWilmer) January 16, 2016
It’s worth noting the company has been testing it for at least a couple of months; the earliest mention we can find is around December 4.
Aside from the aesthetic shift, there seem to be a several new features to help it approximate a real browser. Not as if that were a difficult task; the old browser didn’t do much beyond loading the page you wanted to read and following hyperlinks to other sites.
Up top, it looks you can now actually input your own URL should you want to check another page without leaving the Facebook app. You might want to fact-check a detail on an article you read, for instance, or define a word you didn’t understand.
Meanwhile a new bar on the bottom tells you how popular a post is, includes back and forward buttons (finally), lets you bookmark pages, and has a menu button which likely includes a few more features too (unfortunately we can’t access the new browser ourselves yet).
Just about the only big feature that appears to be missing now is tab support. It’s obviously a huge omission, but it might only be a matter of time given all the other features the company is adding.
It’s also an interesting contrast to Instant Articles. While those are bare-bones renderings of publications in order lessen load times, the new browser is instead quite close to approximating a full-fledged app.
Still, both options have the same goal: make sure you never need to leave the Facebook app. With a good enough browser, the Facebook app could essentially become a self-contained ecosystem of its own.
Who knows, it might even be a sign a dedicated Facebook browser could pop up somewhere along the road. Until there are tabs, it wouldn’t stand a chance, but given how many people already load articles from Facebook (read: a lot), improving the browsing experience is a sensible move for the company.
Don’t be surprised if you don’t see the browser yet. It’s only available to a small subset of users (iOS only, as far as we can tell), but most public test features end up receiving a wider roll-out a few months later. We’ve contacted Facebook for more information and will update this post if we hear back.
➤ @Henry Wilmer [Twitter]