Facebook has its own phone now. It’s a midrange HTC phone called the HTC First, which can be bought for $99 on a 2-year AT&T contract in the U.S. (EE and Orange are supported in Europe). It runs a lightly customized version of Android (not even a fork) called Facebook Home. For a few other compatible non-First phones, Facebook Home can be downloaded as an app from the Google Play Store. Facebook Home provides deeper social notifications, such as full-screen (ad-choked) notifications on your lock screen and home screen, and these notifications come from people rather than from apps, apparently.
As with most things Facebook-related, I regard this as a ton of hype from a company that is essentially a one hit wonder. Here’s why I remain skeptical of Facebook Home.
1. “People First” is a Losing Strategy
Facebook Home is, to use the company’s own language, all about people and not apps. If that sounds familiar, it should. Microsoft has been using the same language to talk about WIndows Phone for some time now. What’s worse, this tagline doesn’t even make sense: are the apps you use on Android or iOS somehow not about “people”? The portrait of the stock iOS/Android user that one gets from FB and MS is of someone who indulges lots of discrete, antisocial apps like PDF readers, music players, podcasting clients, and note-takers, and that somehow this must be stopped by putting “people” back at the forefront.
But this portrait is bullshit. It ignores every trend that’s happened on iOS and Android over the past five years. Just look at iOS alone. For an OS that’s not about “people,” it was the perfect proving ground for Instagram (an app so popular that FB had to desperately buy it for ~$1B), Flipboard, Albumatic, and Vine. Cross-platform (read: iOS + Android above others) apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and other SMS-replacements have also sprung up without any need to embrace the FB/MS “people first” ethos. As Michael Gartenberg has noted, resorting to this type of language indicates that one is actually very much involved in a heated battle over apps. It’s always about apps, in other words, and the only people who talk about “people” instead are the ones who are losing the app race. If people were all that mattered, a simple dumbphone with a contacts list would be enough.
2. Facebook Still Doesn’t Get Mobile
FB has the same problem as MS, namely that it wasn’t born mobile (to use Qualcomm’s icky catchphrase) and is having to adjust accordingly. The “app” concept – that high-quality, mostly self-contained programs that do a narrow range of things well – was so revolutionary because it finally addressed the silent majority of users who never multitask and just want their software to do well-defined tasks in relative isolation from each other, while preserving OS stability and device battery life. This is why iOS is so successful and appealing to multiple demographics. From the demos at today’s presentation, Facebook Home has all of the charm of a PC-era trojan that hijacks your device. Facebook is already a huge battery drainer on Android, and now that it has deeper access to your device, as well as the ability to run ads in your cover feed, it’s going to do everything it can to erase the optimized experience that iOS and top-tier Android have been working toward for years. Of course, many people won’t care.
3. It’s Confusing
Most people don’t know what a launcher is. This won’t be a problem for users who buy the HTC First, but for people who download the Home app (odd how a service “not about apps” is itself an app only salable via Google’s Play Store), it’ll be interesting to see how well an app that takes over your entire Android experience fares. Custom launchers (Nova, Apex, Go) are usually the province of power users who know Android in and out, but for the casual FB user, it’ll likely be hard to get back to the stock Android launcher once they go through with the Home setup. This specter of a potentially broken, overly complicated software experience relates back to point #2.
4. Who Will Buy The Hardware?
The HTC First is $99 with a 2-year contract with AT&T. For the same price, you could get a Galaxy S3 on any of the four major American carriers, or an iPhone 4S with Facebook integration into iOS, ad-free. Which would you choose? Granted, I have a low opinion of the savvy of many Facebook users and as such may underestimate how many of them may want to walk into AT&T and buy “the Facebook phone.”
5. Facebook is an iPhone-centric Company
Zuckerberg himself uses an iPhone, and the rest of the company seems to have given much more mindshare to the simple iOS experience, without going out its way to exploit the peculiarities of Android (widgets, larger screen sizes, etc.)
-The ScreenGrab Team