Facebook rolls out Instagram Lite, sired by Tel Aviv team

Instagram Lite is a lighter, faster version of the popular photo-sharing app, designed for people whose internet access is poor

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Facebook's Instagram Lite was designed by the social media giant's team in Tel Aviv (Courtesy)
Facebook's Instagram Lite was designed by the social media giant's team in Tel Aviv (Courtesy)

Facebook on Wednesday started the rollout of Instagram Lite, a lighter, faster version of the popular app designed for people living in remote communities that have poor internet access. The lite version of the app was designed by the social media giant’s team in Tel Aviv, which worked together with a team in New York.

Instagram is a photo-sharing app with more than a billion users worldwide. The app was acquired by Facebook in 2012 and has become part of the daily “sharing” life of many.

The lighter app, available only on Android devices for now, will be rolled out in 170 countries this week, including in Israel, and will be made available globally in the near future, the company said, allowing the Instagram experience to remain fast and reliable for more people, no matter what device or network they are on.

The new app requires only two megabytes to download on Android — considerably less than the full-size version, which was closer to 30MB — but retains the key features that people using entry-level devices want, such as the feed, stories, filters and direct messaging. To do so, the team offloaded much of the code that the app runs on the phone into the cloud, in a similar manner to the Facebook Lite app for mobile phones, also developed in Tel Aviv, which debuted some five years ago.

Slightly more than 63 percent of the world’s population is online, as opposed to nearly 90 percent in North America. And many of the regions that are connected do not have up-to-date mobile devices, robust internet networks, or affordable data plans needed to swiftly deliver much of the data-rich videos or images found on Instagram.

Facebook’s Instagram Lite is a lighter, faster version of the popular app designed for people living in remote communities that have poor internet access (Courtesy)

“We wanted the Instagram experience to remain fast, high-quality, and reliable, irrespective of the device, platform, and network people are on,” said Tzach Hadar, director of Product Management at Facebook Tel Aviv, which is one of the largest strategic engineering hubs for Facebook globally.

Creating that experience was complicated by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, as the team, led by Michelle Lourie in Tel Aviv, started work on the project one year ago.

Aside from the usual challenges of working remotely, the team’s market researchers were unable to travel to target markets, like India or Brazil, to test out the product. Instead, they had to find ways to overcome the limits: each member received an entry-level phone of their own to see firsthand whether the app felt like something they would use. They also connected to emulators to slow down the speedy networks of Tel Aviv.

“Our team was very effective at doing virtual research to find out: What do users need?” said Gal Zellermayer, engineering manager for Instagram Lite, Tel Aviv.

The target audience is the same as that of Facebook Lite – the 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.

For their work, the team focused on what users valued most, namely video and messaging, which remote dwellers use more actively than their urban counterparts. Both posed a challenge for engineers. While the team wanted to preserve the beauty and craft of Instagram’s design, they also had to remain mindful of how the app would perform in a setting with poor connectivity and slower networks.

To keep performance reliable, the team removed much of the ornate, data-rich animation, such as cube transitions or AR filters people can apply onto faces. However, they kept features that required less data, like GIFs and stickers. They also got rid of certain icons that do not make sense to new digital users. For instance, a trash can icon did not resonate as a symbol for getting rid of something, but an “X” rang clear.

Even after rolling out Instagram Lite during testing, the team discovered there were other features on users’ must-have list. For instance, people requested a “dark mode” option, which replaces the bright white background with a black one and gray text. “For people who live in communal areas and close quarters, it’s really important to browse more privately and not bother those around them,” said Lourie in a statement.

The team is already working on offering Instagram Lite in dark mode’s more muted tones, she said.

Facebook’s R&D hub in Tel Aviv, set up in 2013, employs a few hundred workers locally and is the second-largest strategic development center for the social media giant after the US.

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