Facebook Home is here to take over your phone, and your life
Facebook’s huge success is also part of its biggest problem.
It’s always been best-appreciated as a conduit that keeps all kinds of far-flung relationships together. If you’ve seen your sister’s half-marathon finisher’s medal from a race that happened last weekend 2000 miles away, chances are you saw it on Facebook.
But the downside for the company is that Facebook is that its users are starting to think of it as mere infrastructure. Users of the “telephone” (as the Instagram machine was known during the Sixties and Seventies) only thought of the connection to friends and family and didn’t give the American Bell Telephone Company which provided that service another thought.
Facebook is at risk of slipping into a low form of meta-awareness that prevents the company from cementing user loyalty. That’s dangerous, in an age when a newer, hipper social app comes along every four months. Instagram became such a problem that Facebook felt a need to buy the company. Yes, they beat Instagram to death with sacks of money.
We can all agree that this is a great way to die.
Facebook also hasn’t been doing enough to encourage users to spend more time using the service. Facebook needs its users to always, always, _always_ be sharing photos and stories with their friends. Their users need to be lulled into a frame of mind where it barely occurs to them to communicate with friends and family using anything else.
Facebook only has only themselves to blame for their problem. The company was very, very slow to fully notice the importance of phone apps and change their product to suit the new reality.
Boy, have they ever turned things around. Today, they announced “Facebook Home,” a free software product for Android phones. It’s not even close to an update to the familiar Facebook phone app.
It’s fair to say that Facebook Home is designed to wipe an Android phone’s factory-installed personality, and brainwash that device into becoming a focused and committed Facebook soldier.
Rumors have abounded for a couple of years that Facebook was going to follow the Apple model of making their own branded phone. This soon morphed into the idea that they’d follow Amazon’s example instead, and produce a whole new Facebook mobile operating system, using Android as a launching-off point.
What they actually did with Facebook Home is much smarter than either idea. Android was designed from the get-go to be customizable. Developers can create products that adapt or outright replace just about any component of the stock OS. (Example: I love my Samsung Galaxy S III, but I wished it delivered notifications and alerts the same way that my iPhone does. So I just bought a cheap Android app called “iPhone Notifications” that, you guessed it, replaces the stock Android notification system with one that’s identical to iOS, practically pixel for pixel.)
Facebook Home (which will be a free download from the Google Play store starting on April 12) replaces the default Android home/launcher app. As this app is the center of the phone experience, it completely transforms the device you already own.
The goal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, is to redesign the phone around people, instead of apps. You’ll see that idea from the moment you wake up the phone. Instead of seeing a plain lockscreen, or a grid of apps waiting to be launched, you’ll see a screen-filling flow of pictures and stories from your friends’ streams.
You can interact with these posts directly. Tap to see more of the post, or double-tap to like or comment on it.
Okay, but what if you want to use your phone for something _more_ than just seeing your nephew’s drunken spring break photos?
All of your Android apps are still there. Just swipe up from the bottom of the screen (mash your thumb right into the circle with your Facebook profile pic on it) to get to a very clean app launcher.
I’m not a fan of Facebook, but I’m a big fan of what they showed off during the event. Facebook Home is another example of the trend towards mobile interfaces that are stripped of visual clutter and complex interactions. It was hard to spot a single button or menu during the whole presentation. Everything was handled by the simple tactile vocabulary of multitouch.
Facebook Home should increase the pressure on Apple. First Microsoft, then Blackberry, and now Facebook have produced beautiful, simple interfaces that make iOS look increasingly clumsy and layered. When will iOS get its own trip to user-interface detox?
A second key feature of Facebook Home integrates messaging throughout the Android experience. Ordinarily, when a new message arrives on an Android device, the OS throws up an alert. You need to leave the app you’re using and launch another one to reply.
With Facebook Home installed, you’ll see a Chat Head appear on the screen. This is a little circle with your friend’s profile pic in it. A preview of the message flashes, and then disappears. Tap on the head to engage in conversation.
The neat aspect of Chat Heads — no it’s not the name; “Chat Heads” sounds like a syndicated game show from 1982, probably hosted by the afro version of Alex Trebek — is that it all takes place as a layer on top of any other Android app. I can tap out a quick reply while my web browser or my book is still in the background.
It’s a reminder that this device in your hand is, nominally, a “phone” and thus ought to be very good at helping you to talk to people. Though it only works with SMS and Facebook messaging for now.
You can move a Head around on the screen, or dismiss it entirely via the same gesture that dismisses almost anything else in Facebook Home: just flick it to the bottom of the screen.
Because this is Facebook we’re talking about, let’s also mention how devious this feature is. Their whole business is based on interactions, interactions, interactions, and Chat Heads is a mechanism that encourages you to keep using Facebook — and not any of a dozen alternatives — as your main mode of connection. It also encourages you to keep handing Facebook more information about your relationships.
All right, I’ll stop being a party pooper. Look, it’s kind of my job. I know that people use Facebook because they it actually delivers a valuable service to them.
Both the Cover Feed and Chat Heads features try to prioritize the stories and the people who are most important to you. Facebook Home will be a huge failure if I can’t get through a good Kindle book without being reminded twelve times about how well my cousins are doing in various Facebook games.
Facebook Home is obviously an ambitious undertaking and they’re clearly pivoting their whole company slightly towards the mobile experience. The company promises to keep updating Home every month. This part of the news announcement came only a few minutes after they praised Android for being so completely customizable.
So I don’t think these monthly updates will consist of bugfixes and light interface tweaks. It’s perfectly feasable for Facebook to keep replacing element after element of Android until barely a trace of Google’s handiwork remains.
And so, although Facebook didn’t mention Instagram, it’s a dead certainty that before the summer is through, Facebook Home will integrate the company’s own photo apps so tightly that a user will forget that it’s even _possible_ to take a photo that Facebook doesn’t know about.
Which brings up a host of followup questions. When I installed that iPhone-ripoff notification plugin for my Android phone, the OS made me walk through a bunch of warnings: did I _really_ want to give this app permission to run? Because a new notification system or keyboard replacement or launcher is in a position to capture almost any kind of data coming through my device.
You’ll have a chance to try Facebook Home for yourself on April 12. It’s initially going to compatible with just a few high-profile devices (the Galaxy S III, S IV, and Note II from Samsung, and HTC’s One and One X), but Facebook intends to expand the app into more handsets and tablets in the near future.
Facebook is also setting up a certification program with handset makers that allows phones to ship with Facebook Home pre-installed. HTC is the first out of the gate, with the HTC First. It’ll be available for $99 from AT&T starting on April 12. Pre-orders start today.
“Phone users spend more than 20% of their time on Facebook, on average,” Mark Zuckerberg said, at the top of the presentation. By the end, it seemed to me that this number annoys the holy hell out of him. Every percentage point under 100 is another missed opportunity.
Facebook Home looks like a terrific direction not just for Facebook, but for handset software in general. The app-centric focus of iOS and stock Android is very 1990′s. It’s time to replace that idiom with something cleaner and more relevant.
Still, as I close the window on the livestream of today’s Facebook event, I can’t help but think of Robert DeNiro’s voiceover at the start of “Casino,” in which his character explains the casino business.
“In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose. In the end, we get it all.”
I’m guessing that Mark Zuckerberg screens that movie at Facebook headquarters every Tuesday night. His business is social currency instead of the paper kind, but still, I think he would have made a great casino boss.
Photo courtesy of Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP