After years of rumour last week finally saw the release of the Facebook phone. Except it wasn’t a phone at all, rather a phone running Facebook Home, an application which changes many aspects of how the phone operates. Rather than get involved in a lengthy, and costly manufacturing & development battle with the likes of Apple, Android and all of the device manufacturers, Facebook has decided to take a short-cut in its attempt to rule the mobile web.
The elements of Home that have generated the most comment are the Cover Feed and Chat Heads. The first swaps out a phone’s lock and home screens for live versions of the owner’s News Feed. Chat Heads allows people to use Facebook’s messaging services even when using another app. Both of these highlight how tightly integrated Facebook is in the new system, replacing or overlaying on top of previously core functions.
Whilst the new system was previewed on a mid-priced new HTC Android phone, it will be released through Google Play and available on a wider variety of handsets overtime. Facebook clearly have designs on the hundreds of millions of Android handsets worldwide. There will be no Apple equivalent, as Apple would never allow such tinkering with its core products.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that Home will help sell more Android phones. However the fact that it was launched on a phone retailing at $99 suggests that in fact Facebook is using Android’s mass-market dominance as a Trojan Horse; this isn’t something aimed at the early-adopters – it’s for those for whom Facebook essentially is the Internet.
This is a clear play by Facebook to try to replicate its dominance of the desktop web on mobile devices – many put its disappointing IPO down to the fact that it wasn’t adapting to mobile quickly enough. It’s certainly an ambitious and aggressive move, potentially building up its already massive data pools, and enabling it to create truly personalised ad opportunities with mobility at their core. Some have suggested that Apple will be forced to start to mimic the flexibility of the Android platform in order to allow people to download Facebook Home, but it could equally have the entirely opposite effect.
The recent move to align Android and Chrome under one team, following the departure of founder Andy Rubin, could have many reasons. But one could be that it is starting to become hard to see how Android materially benefits Google’s bottom line. Samsung & Amazon barely mention Android anymore, China’s fastest growing mobile company uses it, yet most of Google’s services are banned or limited in that country, and now one of Google’s biggest competitors has launched a product that could well cut Google’s products out of the picture.
Facebook’s mobile strategy is now clear to see: try to dominate the platforms, rather than replicate or compete with them. For advertisers who have invested heavily in Facebook up till now, this could well offer opportunities to start to take their messages to every-day phone-owners as they go about their day-to-day.
But equally Facebook’s ambitious attempt to take-over the main parts of the mobile experience could well back-fire, whether due to consumer concerns about the amount of data Facebook will now have access to, or because Google decides it is no longer interested in building its competitors’ businesses as well as its own.