Why Facebook Home Is Potentially Brilliant

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Let’s say we build a phone, theoretically. We’re not! But if we did, we could get maybe 10 million people to use it. 20 million. That doesn’t move the needle for us.

-Mark Zuckerberg, Disrupt SF 2012

With today’s leaks, it’s looking like Zuck was being almost completely honest.

Facebook isn’t building a Facebook Phone. They’re letting HTC do it for them.

But that’s seemingly not the end goal, here. Don’t worry too much about the Facebook Phone, as in whatever hardware might get announced at the event on Thursday. It is, at best, a test bed. Facebook doesn’t want an Android phone. They want all of the Android phones, including the ones already out there. And they can get a whole bunch of ‘em, too.

You see, today’s leak signals something rather crucial to Facebook’s Android strategy. Contrary to a thousand reports leading up to Thursday’s announcement, Facebook doesn’t seem to be forking Android. If they are, it’s in subtle ways — little tweaks that polish up the experience (with things like Facebook Chat bubbles being allowed to float above other apps), made because in this case, with this phone, they can.

Instead, most of the magic comes in a launcher. A launcher that can, like the dozens of launchers already on the Google Play store, be installed on any Android phone once Facebook flips the switch.

Facebook isn’t reinventing the wheel. It’s more like they’re getting ready to sneak up in the middle of the night and strap shiny blue rims onto everyone else’s wheels.

For the unfamiliar, a launcher lays on top of an Android build, rather than replacing it. It boots when your phone boots. It can completely overhaul the device’s built-in homescreen, add functionality, and determine both the general look and the way you launch apps.

To 90% of users, what else does an OS even do?

If Facebook wants to add fancy, built-in-house Messenger functionality to the home screen? Sure, a launcher can do that. If Facebook wants to do away with the standard bucket-o’-icons-and-widgets design of the home screen entirely, and turn the whole thing into what is essentially an always-on Facebook app that just happens to have a drawer for other apps? Sure. Any phone that Facebook can stick this launcher on becomes “the” Facebook phone.

All those Google Apps? They’d still work. And you know what Google could do about it, even if they cared to? Not a whole lot.

Facebook just needs to get people to install it. If only Facebook had some way of reaching a few hundred million Android users. If only they could shout to the Android masses, “Hey! You! You like Facebook? Make your phone a Facebook phone! Click here!”

Oh, wait.

Of the 750 million-or-so Android devices out there, Facebook is regularly used on around 200 million of them. Not just installed. Used.

Let’s say Facebook decides to push this launcher out to everyone, and sends out a note like the one above the next time a user opens their app. If two out of ten people already using Facebook on Android go along with it — bam, that’s 40M “Facebook Phones”, not a one of them built by Facebook.

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And two in ten is probably low. Sure, you might not install it. You’ve probably got a rooted HTC Butterfly imported from Japan running a nightly build of Cyanogen. But how many people will install it just to give it a try? How many people — the little brothers and sisters of the world — already see their Android phones as Facebook-in-a-box?

Lots. Lots and lots and lots.

So why might Facebook even bother working with HTC, as today’s leak suggests they are? Because they can. It gets the ball rolling, and works out for everyone. HTC gets to launch “the” Facebook Phone (and maybe, just maybe a bit of exclusivity with Facebook Home), and Facebook gets a free test bed and an example handset to convince other OEMs to ship with their launcher out of the box.

“The strategy we have is different from every other tech company that’s building their own hardware system, like Apple. We’re going in the opposite direction.”