PALO ALTO, Calif. — People have been waiting for the Facebook Phone for years. Not real people, mind you, just technology reporters. Since at least 2009, we’ve seen rumors, leaks, and scoops about Facebook’s on-again, off-again efforts to build a device meant to rival Apple and Google’s smartphones.
No one ever quite articulated why this would be a good idea either for Facebook or for its hordes of users. If Facebook built its own phone, the company could expect to sell, at most, a few million of them a year — not that many, considering that its social network already claims a billion members. Also, who wants a Facebook phone? What would that even mean? Anybody who wants Facebook on his phone can already get it — the company’s apps and mobile site are hugely popular, and buttons to share stuff on Facebook are built into most mobile phones, including the iPhone. Why should Facebook go to the trouble of building its own phones when phone makers have already done that hard work for them?
That appears to be the thinking behind Facebook Home, the big thing Facebook unveiled this week. I choose that term — “thing” — very carefully. Facebook Home isn’t a phone, it isn’t an operating system, and it isn’t an app. Instead, it’s a free-to-download lock- and home-screen replacement for Android phones. If most people’s phones are already Facebook phones, Facebook Home makes them Facebookier, bringing the social-network’s content (including, at some point, ads), to your phone’s foremost screen. By riding in on Google’s Android app store, Facebook Home is a brilliant bit of jujitsu — it uses Android’s “openness,” Google’s chief selling point for its phone OS, to turn Google phones into Facebook phones. But if Facebook’s strategy works — that is, if millions of people install it and Facebook-ified home screens become a selling point for Android — the move might be even worse news for Apple.
To understand Facebook Home, go to your smartphone and turn it on. You’ll see a screen that displays a clock, some alerts from your apps, and an unlock slider. That’s known as the “lock screen.” Then, when you unlock your phone, you’re presented with the “home screen” — the interface that shows off all your apps. If you install Facebook Home, both those screens will immediately be replaced by Facebook’s new interface. After that, every time you turn on your phone you’ll see a feed of photos and updates from your friends. You can flip through the pictures, Like them, and even comment on things without ever unlocking your device. To get to your apps, you’ve got to tap a little bubble to bring up a new menu. Facebook Home inserts itself between you and every non-Facebook thing you might want to do with your phone. The effect is one of parasitic invasion: In the past, your Android phone did everything, including Facebook. Now it’s a Facebook machine first. After a few taps, you might get it to do other things, too.
Mark Zuckerberg put an optimistic spin on the shift during Thursday’s Facebook press event. Until now, he argued, interfaces for computers and phones have always been built around applications. Any time you want to do something on your machine, you click or tap an app first. But Zuckerberg thinks that’s an outdated way of navigating through computers, especially devices like phones, which are designed for communication. “What if we flipped that around and made it so that our phones are designed around people first, and then you could also interact with apps when you wanted to?” Zuckerberg asked.
I know what you’re thinking: I don’t want Facebook to take over my phone! I like apps! This is super terrible! What the heck is this world coming to?! Yes, yes, I feel the same way. But I’m a thirty-something fellow who writes for a living and you’re the kind of person who reads essays about technology; in other words, you and I are probably too old and stodgy for this anyway. But there are tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world who spend many hours a day on Facebook. In fact, according to the company’s stats, Facebook accounts for almost a quarter of the time people spend on smartphones. What’s more, a lot of those people are using terrible Android phones — phones sold at bargain-basement prices, whose manufacturers slapped on ugly user-interface “skins” that make the devices difficult to use. For those Facebook addicts, Facebook Home could well be an improvement.
I used the system for a while at Facebook’s demo area, and I didn’t find it to be such a terrible development for the world. Facebook Home is very pretty and responsive — it’s better looking, actually, than the standard iOS and Android home and lock screens. I also really liked an intuitive feature that Facebook (stupidly) calls Chat Heads: When you receive a message from a friend, his face pops up on your screen in a little bubble; when you tap it, you get a reply window superimposed over the app you’re currently using. This means that you can respond to a text while you’re reading a news article, without ever having to tap out of the news-reading app — it’s the slickest implementation of messaging that I’ve seen on any phone.
I still don’t think Facebook Home is for me. I really don’t use Facebook very much at all. But after playing with it for a bit, I came away convinced that Facebook addicts should install Home on their phones.
Manjoo is Slate’s technology reporter and the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.