Facebook announced its long-rumoured plans for a “Facebook phone” today.
Here are the basics:
- Facebook Home, essentially a very deeply integrated Android app that overlays the phone’s entire interface.
- Facebook Home includes: Cover Feed, which shows updates and photos from your friends (and will eventually include ads); app launcher, which lets you access your other apps; and Chat Heads, which lets you send and receive Facebook messages and texts while using any other app.
- Facebook is partnering with HTC to debut Home on a low-cost smartphone called the First. However, you can also download it starting April 12 if you have an HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung Galaxy S III, or Samsung Galaxy Note II.
On the face of it, it’s a move calculated to drive consumers to spend even more time on Facebook in order to drive mobile ad revenue.
Facebook already has nearly 700 million mobile users (see chart, right), and accounts for 18 per cent of all time spent on iOS and Android devices. That’s massive, but the mobile ad market is all about scale, and companies must reach for audience and engagement in every way they can.
Behind the scenes, however, Facebook’s phone fulfils other ambitions:
- More control over Android development, an increasingly unwieldy problem for Facebook.
- It moves Facebook in the direction of becoming a full-fledged mobile platform, which includes app distribution, importantly.
- Facebook Home’s Chat Heads app is clearly aimed at neutralising the threat messaging services like WhatsApp and Kik pose to Facebook’s central position on mobile.
Android development is a huge headache for Facebook. For a huge and complex app, supporting Android’s many iterations can quickly devolve into a whack-a-mole game of patching bugs.
In a recent blog post, Facebook’s engineering team boasted of a hack made to Android in order to sidestep memory limitations. The first comment on the post, from Chris Schmitz, asks why Facebook takes pride in its convoluted fixes to Android:
“This is madness. Instead of admitting you had simply too many methods to manage (I can’t imagine what a mess the code must look like), you blindly moved forward, hacking away until you were lucky enough to find a way to make it work …. If any design project requires too many specialised fixes (hacks) it’s a clear sign you’re doing it wrong and there’s likely a better solution. Sure you managed to plug the holes in your paper dinghy, but that doesn’t mean the smallest wave won’t sink you.
By integrating more deeply into Android through Facebook Home, Facebook would have greater control over the operating system and theoretically be able to avoid constant fixes and patches.
(It’s not clear if Facebook Home will ever make it to older versions of Android, so not all Android users will be able to use it.)
What’s certain is that Facebook Home is another example of how Android’s open source principles allow a third-party company like Facebook to take control of the platform and reappropriate it for their own purposes. Android owns global mobile platform market share, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg clearly sees it as the route through which Facebook will become even more omnipresent in people’s lives.
With Home, Facebook has basically disintermediated Google’s control over user experience.
Home also gives Facebook the option to become a full-fledged mobile platform in the future.
The logical next step would be to directly go after Google’s services. Crucially, that would include app distribution. Facebook already has an App centre, which helps users find apps already on Facebook’s platform as well as those apps using a Facebook log-in across any platform (like Spotify on iOS or Android, for example). Make no mistake: Facebook wants every app to eventually be a Facebook app.
Once Facebook and other platforms begin to clash head-to-head over app distribution, there’s only one end-game for this.
Facebook either transforms itself into something that resembles a mobile platform, with its app launcher as a de-facto app store and distribution centre. Or it must release an outright fork of Android with its own full-fledged app store (as Amazon did for its Kindle devices).
Otherwise, if some apps choose to cut Facebook out — like Albumatic did — it will miss on a large piece of consumer time-spend on mobile, and lose opportunities to extend the reach of its ad platforms.
All that said, HTC is an odd choice as a launch partner for Facebook Home. HTC’s sales have been steadily declining since the third quarter of 2011, even as the rest of the market has exploded. If Facebook really wants to push Home— and not just hope Android users download it from Google Play — it needs to partner with Samsung, which sells as many Android phones as almost every other manufacturer combined.
The bottom line is that this is essentially a low-risk but possibly high-return proposition for Facebook. If no one downloads the app, it isn’t the end of the world — nearly 700 million people already have its regular app downloaded. If Facebook Home succeeds, it could help draw consumers even deeper into Facebook and create more advertising opportunities.
Of course, this is all a moot point if teens really begin to flee the service in droves.
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