Facebook Launches “Home”: Less Than an OS, More Than an App

Facebook Home still gives users access to apps.

Facebook has announced “Home” for Android smartphones (and, eventually, tablets). It’s something less than a full Facebook mobile operating system, as some expected before the company’s presentation, and more like an app update.

Facebook also announced the Facebook Home Program, which will work with several carriers and device makers to pre-load Home onto select devices,  including ones built by Samsung, Sony, ZTE, and Lenovo. The first “Home” phone will be the HTC First, a $99.99 phone that will ship April 12 from AT&T.

Users will also be available to download Home as an app from Google Play, which will be compatible with certain phones that use either the “Jelly Bean” or “Ice Cream Sandwich” version of Android: Home will support the HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung GALAXY S III and Samsung GALAXY Note II. It will also work on the forthcoming HTC One and Samsung GALAXY S4.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told analysts and journalists assembled for his presentation that Home was designed to reorient the phone and the Facebook mobile experience around people, not apps: “On one level, Home is the next mobile version of Facebook. On the other, it’s a change in the relationship with the next generation of computing devices.”

Home essentially is a custom start screen for your Android phone, replacing the home screen with one centered on Facebook. While users can access other Android apps on the phone, the focus is on those apps that run on the Facebook platform. Home can also be enabled as a lock screen.

From the “Home” screen, users can swipe left and right to access the user’s News Feed (now renamed “Cover Feed”). Users can comment and Like images, which are blown up to the size of the screen. Videos won’t be shown, group posts won’t show up, and there won’t be any ads—at least at first. Swiping the screen down brings up the app drawer (Android apps, said a Facebook product manager who asked not to be named) instead of apps designed to run atop the Facebook platform.

There are also “Chat Heads,” a new way of messaging. Chat Heads pops up a “head” icon of a friend; tapping the “head” allows the user to exchange messages. Users can juggle multiple Chat Head conversations at one time.

Speculation that Facebook could be announcing a “Facebook phone” ramped up earlier this month, shortly after Facebook sent out event invites hinting at a “new home on Android.” TechCrunch’s Josh Constine predicted that the event could herald a Facebook phone, either via forking the Android open-source OS, or some combination of an app or UI skin.

Zuckerberg said, however, that the company had never really considered forking the open-source Android OS: “It just wasn’t the right way to go.” The idea of the Home program, he added, was to get Home on as many phones as possible without the need to actually design a device.

Earlier this month, Facebook began asking some of its Android phone clients to update its app without going through the Google Play app market. While Facebook is enabling Home downloads via Google Play, the other option may prove important later on, as Home buries the Android search bar and microphone typically found atop of the Android start screen. That’s not something likely to please Google executives, who depend on Android search in order to serve ads. Google representatives did not respond to requests for comment at press time.

Zuckerberg said that any action taken to prevent Home from working with Android software would contradict Android’s promise of openness. “It wouldn’t be a subtle thing,” he said. “They’d have to do a complete 180-[degree turn] on this.”

And can we expect a version of Home on Apple’s iOS? Probably not. Zuckerberg described Apple as a strategic partner, but iOS as a “closed” system.


Image: Facebook

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