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.