Facebook Home launches to eat Google's lunch

The company has rolled out a replacement for the Android home screen.

Facebook announced its long-awaited foray into smartphone development last night with Facebook Home, a replacement skin for Android phones.

Phones with Home installed have pervasive integration with the social network, as well as a user interface that clearly takes heavy cues from Facebook's universal design manual. As well as a traditional, app-led home screen, you can have messages – both Facebook chat and SMS – on the front page, and the lock screen displays photos and stories from your News Feed full-screen on your device. "Liking" is, of course, built-in.

It's an entry in to a competitive market from an oblique angle, but one which could work well for the company. Expectations before the event were that Facebook would announce new hardware, or, failing that, a forked version of Android which would be marketed as a Facebook OS. Doing either of those – roughly paralleling Apple and Microsoft's tactics in the smartphone market, respectively – would have required a considerably greater outlay than Home did, and may not have had commensurate benefits.

That's not to say Facebook was skimping on the hardware front. The launch also featured the reveal of the HTC First, as the phone company teamed up with Facebook to get the rights to build the "First" (get it?) phone with Facebook Home built-in as its core skin.

The First is clearly a mid-range Android device – HTC isn't going after the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 with this – but that could be in Facebook's best interests. Home is something the company wants to be in as many pockets as possible, and the more low-end devices it runs on, the closer it will be to achieving that aim. And the benefits to HTC are obvious as well; once you drop below the top end, differentiating any particular Android device from the scores of others with roughly the same specs gets difficult. Home could be a big deal in clearing that hurdle.

But the most interesting possibility for Facebook is that, by stopping short of developing their own version of Android, they've created something which can be installed with ease on nearly any Android phone. It provides the company with far deeper hooks into a user's life than just installing an app would, without a significantly higher hurdle to leap.

And, of course, where Facebook goes, advertising follows. At the launch, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that "there are no ads in this yet, [but] I'm sure that one day there will be". It fits with the Facebook ethos that sees ads as just another type of content, which users should see with equal prominence in their news feed to the status – but when that "feature" is rolled out, expect some grumbles.

But an oblique entry into a crowded field doesn't make Facebook any less of a threat to the companies currently in the lead – and that goes double for Google, which really should be quaking in its boots at this move. The search giant's entire reason for making Android is to use it to harvest data and sell ads to mobile users. Home is clearly an attempt to eat Google's lunch in that regards, without taking on the expense burden of actually having to develop and maintain an operating system. Eventually, the two companies will surely come to a head over that – and I wouldn't like to make bets on who will walk away victorious.

Facebook Home on an HTC First. Photograph: Facebook

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.