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Facebook introduces Hello, an app to replace the Android dialer

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Can better contacts and call blocking make it a hit?

Phone calls may have fallen out of fashion, but Americans still make 1 billion of them every day. And yet the experience of making a call isn’t all that great: phones don’t always recognize numbers, contacts can be difficult to manage, and they rarely take advantage of newer technologies like Wi-Fi calling. Now Facebook is introducing an app designed to fix that: Hello, an Android-only dialer app that seeks to modernize phone calls while also working to put Facebook at the center of all your communications. Among other features, it lets you more easily make free calls over Wi-Fi.

Hello, which is available in the Google Play store as a free download, replaces the native Android dialer with a significantly more Facebook-centric version. The company is touting three key features: it uses Facebook to identify callers so you know who’s calling, even if you haven’t stored their contact information; it makes it easy to prevent unwanted callers from ringing your phone; and it has a powerful search feature that’s particularly helpful for finding the numbers of local businesses.

The app also promotes free calling over Wi-Fi using VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol. The feature, which has long been a part of Facebook Messenger, will likely see more use inside a dialer. And if you miss a call, Hello offers you the option of responding using Messenger.

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There are dozens of free dialer replacements available for Android, though few have become massively popular. For most, the native dialer is good enough, or at least not worth the bother of replacing. Google’s Hangouts dialer, for example, has fewer than 5 million downloads. But there’s clearly an appetite for apps that replace some aspects of the phone: Viber has more than 100 million downloads on Android, and Skype has more than 500 million.

Bringing Facebook back to the core of the operating system

Meanwhile, Facebook is still stinging from the failure of Home, its ambitious project to replace the Android homescreen and lockscreen with the News Feed. Home, which appeared to represent the beginnings of a Facebook-centric smartphone operating system, launched with much fanfare in 2013. But users were cool to the idea, and the app topped out at fewer than 5 million downloads.

Hello represents a new attempt at bringing Facebook to the core of the operating system. The blue-and-white app uses Google’s Material Design principles, and is organized into four main tabs: recent calls, the dialer, contacts, and settings. When you receive a call from a new number, Facebook attempts to match it with a user profile. If it finds a match, and the user has chosen to let Facebook users find them by their phone number, the person’s face and a miniature profile will pop up on your phone. You’ll see their face, hometown, and whether you have mutual friends, among other info. After the call, you can view additional information, including their email address and a website, if they’ve added one.

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Leaked screenshots of Hello from last month indicated the app would include some sort of automatic call blocking. It turns out Hello doesn’t actually block numbers, in the traditional sense. Instead, it simply sends them to voicemail. But Hello crowdsources a list of commonly blocked numbers, and will optionally send any calls from them to voicemail on your behalf. You can also "block" any other nuisance number with a single tap.

A useful local search engine

Hello’s final core feature: a search engine that ties into Facebook’s local listings for easy calls to local businesses. Need a restaurant’s phone number? Just type in the first few letters, and so long as the business has a Facebook page, Hello will surface its address, phone number, and an average star rating from Facebook users. It's a handy feature, but Google has included local search in its dialer since 2013, and it's unclear that Facebook's database of businesses has caught up to Google's quite yet. (Google offers caller ID from businesses, too.)

Facebook has no plans to make money from the app directly, says Andrea Vaccari, a product manager at the company. "Facebook is about making the world more open and connected," he says. "We think it’s core to our mission." Hello isn’t built to reach the scale of even Messenger — it isn’t likely to ever make it to iOS, given the system-level controls it needs to operate. But by improving on Google’s mediocre contacts app, it could gain a modest following — and give Facebook experience in building more modest mobile utilities. The path to a more successful version of Home may now be under construction, brick by brick.

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