By creating its own interface for Android phones, Facebook is taking its fight to its arch-enemy Google, ironically using Google’s very own cellphone operating system.
Called Facebook Home, it is effectively a skin over Android that displays information like a Facebook feed, with its apps and messaging. This customisation of Android – Amazon created its own forked version to power its Kindle Fire tablet – is being built into a handset made by HTC. The HTC First, which goes on sale in the US on April 12, runs the Facebook interface.
“We’re not building a phone, and we’re not building an operating system, but we are also building something that is a lot more … than an ordinary app,” said Facebook’s controversial CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook may technically not be making their own Facebook phone, but, let’s face it, it IS a Facebook phone.
“Today we are finally going to be talking about that Facebook phone. Or, more accurately, we are going to talk about how you can turn your Android device … into a great social phone. We think this is the best version of Facebook there is,” said Zuckerberg. Yes, obviously, half of its users access Facebook via mobile and Android is the fastest growing smartphone operating system in the world. Zuckerberg knows how to fish where the fish are.
Facebook Home will work on a select few high-end phones. Owners of Samsung’s Galaxy S3, Note 2 and S4; as well as HTC’s One and One X, will be able to download the Facebook Home app on April 12 and customise those handsets.
It’s an interesting ploy by Facebook. Who, in this hyper-connected social media world of ours, wouldn’t want to have their mobile web served up to them in the social network 1-billion people call home, or Facebook?
It seems, at first glance, like an assault on Google, doesn’t it?
That much it is, because both are fighting to be the portal into the web, where the gatekeeper can keep you locked into its walled garden. If you’re in Facebook, the searches take you back into Facebook. Sharing is easiest, sometimes only possible, within Facebook’s news feeds and walls. And to show you adverts – even if only one in 2 000 people even look at those ads.
Google always seems to point you towards its social media network, Google +, doesn’t it? Google products appear higher in searches, and when you are pointed at another website, no doubt it features Google Ads, earning revenue for you-know-who.
But Facebook is actually taking the fight to mobile networks too, as well as messaging services like Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat and others. SMS is still a massive profit centre for networks, even as MTN and Vodacom recently made their bundled texts cheaper. Unfortunately you have to buy them starting at 40-million, to get them at 14c each. Ovum forecasts that social messaging cannibalisation of SMS revenues will grow from $32.6-billion in 2013 to over $86-billion in 2020.
The proof is in the pudding and this is going to be a fast-baking dessert. In a few months there will be an indication of the Facebook phone’s success based on sales of the HTC First. There will also be an indication of the Facebook Home app’s success based on downloads for a rather limited, albeit high-end, slice of Android phones.
* Good comments from Jan Dawson, the chief telecoms analyst at Ovum:
“Any broadening of Facebook’s appeal on mobile devices would have to be broad-based, and the Android launcher approach allows it to target a huge installed base of hundreds of millions of Android users, which will be a large chunk of Facebook’s total user base of more than a billion people.
“To users, the sell here will be making it easier to share information, photos and so on with friends. But to Facebook, this is about becoming more deeply embedded in the operating system on mobile devices, and creating a broader platform. Since Facebook doesn’t make an operating system for mobile devices, this is the next best thing. It will allow Facebook to track more of a user’s behaviour on devices, and present more opportunities to serve up advertising, which is Facebook’s main business model. And that presents the biggest obstacle to success for this experiment: Facebook’s objectives and users’ are once again in conflict. Users don’t want more advertising or tracking, and Facebook wants to do more of both.
“This is a great experiment for Facebook – it’s much lower risk than developing a phone or an operating system of its own, and if it turns out not to be successful, there will be little risk or loss to Facebook. If it does turn out to be successful, Facebook can build on the model further and increase the value provided in the application over time. The biggest challenge will be that it can’t replicate this experience on iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry, the three other main platforms.
“For carriers, the risk is that this puts Facebook’s communication services front and centre on the device and makes them easier to use and more integrated with the core experience on the device, which should make them easier to use than when they’re buried in an app, and should accelerate the shift from carrier services to over the top (OTT) services. It should be a big boost to Facebook Messenger and the associated voice and video services.”