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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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad