Yesterday Facebook showed off their much-hyped Facebook Home, and the HTC First, a mid-range smartphone that showcases the project by putting it front-and-center on the device. The reaction has been somewhat mixed.
Everyone seems to agree some extreme users (“read: fanatic“, as CNET’s +Jessica Dolcourt says) of Facebook may love it. Assuming it’s good, which let’s be honest, Facebook’s track record for quality apps is nothing to write home about.
Less certain is why anyone else would want Facebook Home, or why anyone would be excited by a midrange smartphone from a failing OEM that has been reduced to throwing spaghetti at the wall.
Facebook Home is likely to go down as the biggest waste of talent and resources in the history of Mark Zuckerberg’s company. The challenges facing it are virtually insurmountable, and in the end it seems to offer nothing of real value to the Facebook ecosystem from an End-User perspective.
Facebook Home faces some the major challenges.
1. Will Users Want It?
The likely answer is: some, yes, but probably not many. Think about the average user, not power users who already like to fool around with Android skins. Facebook Home forces the user to relearn their phone fundamentally. And with Facebook’s proclivity for changing their look and feel, and the fact that neither phones nor Android are either their core strength or their business, the risk of waking up one morning to find your phone has changed look and feel without warning or guidance, perhaps dramatically, is hard to ignore. Again, Facebook’s core business isn’t an OS, it isn’t making a great UI for general smartphone use, it’s building a UI for their own social network.
In any event, how many people are clamoring for All Facebook, All The Time, In Your Face 24/7 from Lockscreen to Homescreen and Beyond? I’d wager not many.
2. Will Google Allow It?
It’s doubtful Google can stop their OEM partners from skinning phones with Facebook Home. Many already use their own skins. It’s hard to see, however, that in its current form Google will allow Facebook Home as a standalone app in the Play Store. If they attempt updates outside the Play Store, which they’ve tried before, Google will almost certainly change their policies to prevent it.
It’s also a potentially sneaky move: after a while, Facebook could launch their own app store, and retroactively remove the Play Store from your device on which it is already installed, and Google would be powerless to block future updates in retaliation. At any rate nothing prevents Google from changing their policies in the future. Trying to plant your flag in enemy territory is hard when it depends on them allowing you to.
3. Will OEM’s Promote It?
In a word: not really. Oh sure, HTC and Samsung and maybe some others might make a phone here and there preinstalled with Facebook Home, but on the one hand they will continue to promote their own flagships, the One, the S, the Optimus, etc… Those phones differentiate them, whereas a Facebook Home phone homgenizes them at least on the software side. The only reason OEM’s will make this, apart from the possibility of leveraging an ad revenue sharing agreement as they have with Google, is to gain leverage for future ad revenue sharing negotiations with Google. OEM’s don’t want a one-horse platform race (unless it’s their own platform) because that gives another company all the leverage. A lesson learned from Microsoft.
And unlike Google, whose Android platform allows nearly endless customization whose vision is not entirely controlled by Google, Facebook alone controls the direction Facebook Home will take. This ensures it will never be their favorite choice. This also applies to #4 below.
4. Will Carriers Promote It?
Again, not really. Carriers like to promote either phones that will differentiate them, or in a few cases a big flagship involving a co-marketing effort like the Galaxy S III. Facebook doesn’t have Samsung or even Google’s budget for co-marketing (nor have they proven they can sell retail effectively through their site), which will strand it on non-flagships that also aren’t carrier favorites.
5. Will It Be Any Good?
Not if Facebook’s current offerings for Android and iOS are any indication. They have made definite improvements, but the apps are still slow and buggy, with new features and redesigns slow to roll out, and they still don’t have an app optimized for a tablet on any platform. It’s hard to believe we can leap from crummy apps to stellar skin without completing the intervening stages.
Martk Zuckerberg once said that making a Facebook phone would not be in his company’s best interests. I would argue that compared to Facebook home it might have been. Learning the ins and outs of the complex relationship between an OS maker, smartphone OEM’s, and the carriers might have informed them of the many difficulties that would attend a project like Facebook Home. They might have understood why Android’s openness is its virtue (not because Facebook can exploit it, but because carriers and OEM’s increasingly prefer it). They might have learned the responsibility that comes with ensuring your UI be first and foremost a good interface for its most basic functions.
It’s certainly hard to see how Facebook Home is the direction Facebook should be headed in, apart from a shortsighted desire to try anything to shove more ads on more screens more of the time. This is not a project for Facebook users, this is for Facebook advertisers, and until Facebook returns to putting users first I fear they will continue in this direction.