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 problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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