After a years-long lead up of false starts, half-measures, and rumors, Facebook's phone plans will finally be revealed tomorrow. The event, in which Facebook promises to show off its "new home on Android," is likely to involve two major announcements. First, we are expecting new software for Android called "Facebook Home" that will replace your homescreen with Facebook content and features. Second, we are expecting a mid-range phone built by HTC that will showcase the software.
Over the years, Mark Zuckerberg has protested many times that Facebook isn't interested in building a phone. Believe it or not, you can still take those statements at face value (at least for now). In fact, Zuckerberg has been hinting all along at just the sort of features we're expecting tomorrow. Here he is speaking in July 2012:
There are lots of things that you can build in other operating systems as well, that aren't really building out a whole phone, which really wouldn't make much sense for us to do. [emphasis mine]
Instead of putting its own horse on the track, it's putting a jockey on a winner: Android
Zuckerberg is right that it makes little to no sense for Facebook to try to produce a phone itself. The company would immediately be setting itself up for failure were it to try to compete directly in the marketshare battle. Facebook would not only look bad in comparison to Apple and Samsung, it would look bad when set against the current also-rans, who are massive and experienced players like Nokia, BlackBerry, and Microsoft. Facebook can't win, place, or even show in the smartphone marketshare horse race. Instead of putting its own horse on the track, it's putting a jockey on a winner: Android.
If you hear anybody saying this rumored "HTC First" is the long-awaited "Facebook phone," back away slowly. Facebook's play isn't about taking on Apple or Samsung — that's just not a game that Facebook can win. Facebook isn't interested in selling hardware, but it is deeply, desperately interested in making sure it maintains its central position in social networking, the web, and the internet at large. Facebook Home is potentially a major part of that effort.
"Does anybody want a Facebook phone?" is the wrong question. The right question is "Do you want the phone you already have and like to become a Facebook phone?" The number of people who will answer "yes" may surprise you.
"Do you want the phone you already have and like to become a Facebook phone?"
Facebook recently commissioned a study from IDC and (even accounting for that provenance) the results bode well for the company. A full 70 percent of smartphone owners use their phone to access Facebook, making it the third most-used function behind only email and web browsing. Some large portion of those users are Android owners and some very large portion of those users are soon going to see Facebook make them a compelling offer.
Facebook Home will likely include News Feed updates and contact integration. There are other features in store, however, that will give consumers real reasons to switch. Facebook has actually been building them out over the past year: free Wi-Fi calling, integrated free messaging with SMS built-into the app, and (maybe) built-in app discovery via App Center.
These features are largely already available now, but Facebook will recontextualize them in a compelling way and, just as importantly, it has an immensely popular app already through which to advertise Facebook Home. It all will depend on how well the software works, of course, but if it's good, Facebook may be able to reach a critical mass of customers.
Facebook being Facebook
Someday, Facebook may decide it wants to get into the hardware game and try to make the kinds of profits that Apple and Samsung enjoy — but for now Zuckerberg is focusing on what Facebook is good at: being Facebook. That means centralizing and monetizing its position in social and on the internet. Mobile devices are the dominant way people access the internet, so Facebook needs to get as much presence there as it possibly can.
As I've argued before, the move to mobile and apps is a move away from the open web and into a strange new world of interlinking apps. Just last night Twitter jumped into this new world with new tools for app developers, and Facebook has long been trying to make itself the essential plumbing for social interaction on apps.
Facebook Home is less about Apple and Samsung and BlackBerry and more about Twitter and Google+ and anybody else who might take eyeballs away from Facebook. Right now, Facebook and Twitter are equals citizen on your Android phone: you can tap the either icon to get your social fix (heaven forefend you actually use their terrible widgets). Facebook Home upends that parity, and if it gains traction it gives Facebook a significant advantage.
Every Android phone is just a couple of clicks away from becoming a "Facebook phone"
With Facebook Home, every Android phone is just a couple of clicks away from becoming a "Facebook phone." I can't suss out every last implication of that shift, but I can tell you that it's a much bigger deal than the release of some mid-range HTC device. Facebook isn't kidding around when it calls itself a "mobile first" company, and if it has its way we could be facing a "Facebook first" mobile internet.