What Facebook Home means to Apple and Google

How important is Facebook really? The answer may come soon after April 12, when the social network releases Home to Google Play. The Android add-on usurps the homescreen, putting interactions/people first and pushes apps to the background. This, ah, Home invasion means potential trouble for Apple and Google, but in vastly different ways. Apps anchor both their platforms, curated content and the digital lifestyles users adopt. Facebook bets that between the choice of both ways, human relationships matter more.

For either the fruit-logo company or search and information giant, another question is perhaps more significant: Is Facebook's mobile experience already good enough? Related: Do most users want to be enmeshed in a constant stream of social updates and interactions most of the time? Affirmative answer to either, or both, spells trouble for the platform developers but most worrisome for Apple, for which Facebook Home affronts and condemns the entire business model.


Apple is a Has-Been

Do you remember Apple's not-long retired marketing tagline "there's an app for that". iPhone, and later iPad and mini, are built around the value of apps and supporting curated content. That's fine for PCs, but not mobile devices. "Computers have been designed around apps and tasks for more than 30 years", Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says, today. "Even though the devices that we're using are a lot nicer now, the UI model is actually largely the same".

He contends that people matter more to people, and that apps are in the way for devices that are so personal and so tuned to interpersonal communications as mobiles. "Why do we need to go into those apps in the first place to see what's going on with the people that we care about?" Zuckerberg asks. "That's because today our phones are designed around apps and not people. We want to flip that around. We want to bring all this content to the front".

But "many people" doesn't mean Apple phones or tablets. Facebook Home isn't available for iOS and probably never will be, because Apple so tightly controls the app-centric user experience. Android gets the big makeover, because Google enables it.

"The great thing about Android is that it's so open", Zuckerberg praises. "It was designed carefully so that you can improve almost any part of the system" -- everything from the keyboard to the camera to the homescreen. "You don't need to fork Android to do this -- you don't even need to modify the operating system, really. Android was designed from the ground up to support these kinds of deep integrations".

By insinuation -- and sometimes the unsaid is more poignant and potent -- iOS does not. Zuckerberg slaps Apple without ever naming the company: "Because of Google's commitment to openness, you can have experiences on Android that you can't have on most other platforms". He's absolutely right. Look how Amazon, HTC and Samsung, among others, have modified Android to create unique experiences and, around them, branded digital lifestyles.

Zuckerberg's statements today, given during the Facebook Home launch event, are as much as anything a statement of purpose and affirmation about the company's core philosophy -- to "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected...these two concepts are a lot about what makes us human".

Facebook's CEO is right. Apps are a tired model that makes little sense on phones. Relationships and tasks matter more -- and context. Apple is cut-off from Facebook's invention. How much or little that's a problem depends much on how satisfied iOS users are with the Facebook status quo -- the app and partial integration into the operating system. If that's good enough for most users or they really do put apps first, Apple needn't worry much. If.

Trojan Horse invades Google

Google is a different matter. While Zuckerberg praises the company and Android, both are means to an end. Android's openness enables Facebook's larger objectives, while allowing the social network to usurp core UI. Facebook Home is a Trojan Horse that takes control of the Android user experience but far more aggressively and freely than other custom UIs. For example, HTC sense or Samsung TouchWiz are designed for the manufacturers' devices. By contrast, Home will be available from Google Play store to anyone with a supported device.

"We want to bring this experience to as many people as possible", Zuckerberg says -- and that's a major reason the company chose not to build a phone or develop an operating system. Facebook is "building something a whole deeper than just an ordinary app".

I find it interesting that among the high-end devices Facebook Home supports -- HTC One, One X and One X+ and Galaxy S III, S4 and Note II -- none are stock Android Nexus devices that Google directly sells. You have to wonder why? I sure do. Perhaps they can run Home and it's unstated. Or perhaps openness is a closed door among rivals. Facebook Home so completely takes over the user experience -- homescreen, notifications and messaging -- there is little room left for Google+. The search and information giant has big ambitions for its rival social network.

Is Google blocking the way Home, or did Facebook simply decide not to go there? Either, or both, is sensible. Considering Nexus device owners are presumably Google enthusiasts, Facebook might not want to invest in them first. The search giant has reasons to keep Zuckerberg and Company off its turf, despite his heaping them praise.

But the Trojan Horse is more insidious. Facebook has launched a Home program for phone manufacturers. HTC is first OEM in line with the appropriately-named First smartphone. AT&T starts selling the device on April 12, but preorders began today. Facebook Home and Instagram are preinstalled, displacing HTC's own Sense UI.

Google has trouble enough dictating the Android experience now. What if more OEMs load Home and make it the default user experience? Zuckerberg promises monthly updates, which means more features and revenue-generating tie-ins, such as search and advertising that directly compete with Google on mobile. Should enough people really want Facebook to be the first -- and major -- user experience, should enough Android OEMs preload Home and should Zuckerberg and Company do search, advertising and context right, collision course with Google is inevitable.

Stock Android Jelly Bean already is less-app focused than older versions, but nothing like Home. Google+ integration is tighter with every release and includes supporting apps like Hangouts and Talk. But apps, not people, rule. Google could do something similar, likely better, than Home supporting G+ -- on stock Android. That Trojan Horse could go anywhere else, and even Nexus devices if allowed.

If Facebook fails, it won't be for not trying. If Home succeeds...

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