Facebook Home: The Facebook Phone That Wasn’t

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s new way to bring Facebook to mobile.  Entitled Facebook Home, this project involves bringing to the Android operating system a user-centric experience as opposed to the current app-based experience.  Facebook chose Android for this project due to the platform’s openness.  I will admit that it’s a bit ironic that the three companies actually either making money from or poised to make money from Android are Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg described Home as a family of apps that keep Facebook content at the forefront of the mobile device experience.  This experience delves deeply into the operating system, too, replacing both the home and lock screens with a Facebook-developed Cover Screen.  The Cover Screen displays social information you’d find on the site and users can interact with that content without having to open a specific app.

Facebook also announced a feature that the company calls “Chat Heads.”  With this feature, users get Facebook’s IM/chat service on their mobile device.  Communications services are brought front and center to the user experience, hiding from the user underlying separate apps and simplifying things a bit.  Frankly, I see that as a laudable goal as there are just so many communications channels these days.

Although Facebook announced partnerships with mobile phone developer HTC to bake Home right into the phone (The HTC First), the service will be available from the Google Play store starting on April 12.  Because Home is an application and is not the base operating system, users will be able to upgrade to new versions of Home at-will, and will not be at the mercy of carriers, who often refuse to support newer versions of operating systems in their devices.

At present, only Android will get the full Facebook Home experience.  iOS and Windows Phone are not as open as Android, thus complicating Facebook’s efforts to hook as deeply into the operating system as they’d like.

My take

I’m really of two minds on this move.  First, for those that live their lives on Facebook, I can see the benefit in making Facebook the primary experience on a mobile device.  Those folks will now have an easier time doing… whatever it is people that spend hours at a time on Facebook do.

In a more general way, I see some potential for Android users as Facebook Home can bring some cross-vendor similarity to the device and package applications in a way that might make more sense for users.  If Home is a hit with the Facebook crowd, there also exists the potential that other outlets—Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, etc.—can hook into the tool and leverage its direct access to the user.

On the opposite side of the argument, though, lies something a bit different.  Do we really need a Facebook “appliance” in our pockets?  I know that, for many people, the terms “Facebook” and “the Internet” are interchangeable, but I can’t imagine that this is a seriously high percentage of people.  Perhaps if other companies decide to leverage the Cover Screen and the Facebook “platform” on Android, it will become something more than “Facebook only” and might garner a wider adoption.

I believe that Facebook was smart to avoid the custom hardware and operating system game.  That field is getting tougher to crack and would have added YAE (Yet Another Ecosystem) to deal with.

For some time, people have been asking what Facebook will do in mobile.  This seems to be the company’s answer.  It was stated that, at present, the Cover Screen will not have ads, but it’s certainly prime real estate once (if) this service kicks into high gear.  If it’s a hit and there is a critical mass of people staring at the Cover Screen whenever they look at their phone, it’s not hard to envision the advertising potential that this space would have for Facebook and how easily that would translate into big dollars.  This would be further enhanced if other networks decide to leverage Facebook’s work in this space and push their own content.

As is the case with many things Facebook, the jury is out.  Once Facebook Home hits the market, Facebook-for-lifers will probably jump on it, but the Android-only nature of the tool will probably hurt it a bit.  If the company is able to reasonably execute on this platform, it could mean major ad revenue, particularly as partnerships with other content providers are put into place.