The Facebook Phone was one of those rumours that wouldn’t die. Even though Mark Zuckerberg said flat out that the idea wouldn’t make sense, the rumour mill kept grinding away. And now, nearly a year his denial we see that Facebook have pursued the opportunity in the way that does make sense for a software company. Delivering a software experience and partnering with hardware companies. This is Facebook Home.
For me, Facebook Home is the most ambitious and intriguing mobile experience since the launch of Windows Phone 7 in 2010. I spent a few years at Nokia designing mobile experiences and reviewing competitors, so when I look at Facebook I’m interested in two basic questions that I will address in posts over the next week:
1. Is Facebook Home a good Homescreen experience?
2. Is Facebook Home a good Facebook experience?
Of course, the problem with setting questions for your critique like I have is that it can blind you to new, unexpected but important qualities of the experience. Sometimes these new design decisions only reveal themselves over time and in unexpected ways. For instance, I really like the Windows Phone backstepping model and it took me months to even realise it could behave differently to Android. But in Facebook Home, there was an unexpected decision that lept out at me straight away — Facebook blocked me from installing it.
Facebook Home isn’t available on Google’s reference Android device, the Nexus. Home is only usable on six devices, three from HTC and three from Samsung. This is strange, because the mission of the Nexus devices is to provide a stock vanilla implementation of Android that would provide developers and (the few) users a device that was free of restrictions from operators and manufacturers. Nexus is meant to be the high-point of openness online, available to everything and everyone. Facebook Home is the first Android experience I’ve wanted on my Nexus that I couldn’t get.
My argument is that Facebook made a conscious, strategic decision to exclude Facebook Home from the Nexus devices.
There are any number of technical, product or marketing reasons that they could have made this decision. Nexus devices have a tiny market share, so it is fair enough to dedicate engineering resources to the wildly popular Samsung Galaxy range. But is this a question of feasibility? I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the Android stack, and from having worked making phone operating systems nothing would surprise me about what is or is not possible. But I just can’t believe that technical factors forced Facebook to limit the initial release to only some flavours of Android. For one, a friend pointed me towards some online instructions and it couldn’t have been much easier to install Facebook Home myself. The restriction only applies through Google Play, not on the device.
Faced with this unexpected decision, the most I can hope for now is to come up with the right question. And the first question I’m going to try out is
3. How does Facebook Home illustrate the strategic tension between Facebook and Google?
Let’s view Facebook and Google as competing online advertising firms — so despite all their other activities, we see them as corporations that make money by serving page impressions with ads on them. In this view, Google fund Android to grow the whole mobile internet market because that serves their advertising interests better. So long as Google ads continue to dominate the ad market then what is good for the internet is good for Google.
Well, it is until the most important online service on Android starts putting bold grabs on prime Android real-estate. Facebook have taken their most addictive content — your friends’ updates and messages — and put it directly on the most prominent place in the phone — the home screen. If Facebook Home succeeds, then users could happily stay in Facebook’s walled garden for more and more of their phone usage. And today we saw Facebook’s financial results claiming a big increase in mobile advertising revenue.
In this view, the decision to exclude Facebook Home from Nexus (at least for now) could still be a tactical move, based on the limited advertising audience that Nexus would support in comparison with the benefits of aligning more strongly with Samsung for revenue and HTC for deeper partnership. But I maintain the costs to Facebook to launch Home on Nexus would have been minimal. This decision should be read as a strategic snub, a deliberately unsent party invitation.
What does this feel like from Android’s perspective? Do they care about Facebook Home as much as they care about any third-party applications, or about Samsung’s wild reskinning of Android. Or is this something more serious? Is this like HP when they saw their Chinese suppliers launching their own brands and beginning to demolish their PC business? Is Google creating a market only to see others grab attention and revenue? Has Google tried to colonise a new world only to be outclassed by local merchants?