Facebook is launching a beta tester program for Android smartphone users that it hopes will result in quicker diagnosis of bugs and more feedback on new features.
The program is based on a recently launched feature provided to Android developers by Google and will allow Facebook to roll out new versions of its software to tightly defined subsets of users before it is released to its multimillion-user audience.
Facebook already gets a report every time its application crashes on an Android phone, but its current development cycle means bug fixes wait up to a month for a regular update before being pushed out. And once out, there's a wait of another month passing before any more changes can be made, said Mike Shaver, director of engineering at Facebook.
A beta program exists, but it targets Facebook employees and partners in the telecom industry. That means a concentration on users in certain areas, such as around its Silicon Valley headquarters, or typically with a smaller number of phones on a smaller number of networks, said Shaver.
"It's not totally representative of the world," he said. "We have a bunch of people in the [Silicon Valley] 650 area code who have nice phones."
With the new program, Facebook hopes to attract a wide range of its users.
"We really want to have millions of users in that program," said Shaver.
Having a large number of users will diversify the number and range of handsets and conditions on which it will be able to test its software before monthly updates are rolled out. It will also be able to focus specific updates on a subset of users through the Google system, something it expects will enable it to better troubleshoot rarer bugs.
"The most important goal for us is to get a really great snapshot of the diversity that is Android," said Ragavan Srinivasan, a product manager at Facebook.
Users have to join a "Facebook for Android beta testers" group in Google to volunteer for the system and explicitly opt into the beta testing program. If automatic updates are switched on, users will get new versions of the software when they become available. Otherwise, users need to manually download the software.
Beyond the bugs, the program will also allow users the chance to see and try new features before they are rolled out widely.
"We often have features present that we could launch later in a different form," said Shaver. "Pieces that we're really not sure about yet."
The system is a little closer to the way Facebook often tests new features and targets bugs on its website. Changes are usually rolled out in stages and updates can be targeted at certain users. Until recently, that wasn't possible on Android.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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