Facebook Home: The Winners And Losers

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If Facebook Home flies — and that’s a pretty big if — Zuckerberg’s freshly announced landgrab for Android owners’ eyeballs, is going to create a lot of losers. The big winner of course will be Facebook itself, as users who chose to install this alternative Facebook reality on their phone are inevitably going to be spending even more time within its walled garden (and they already spent a lot of time in Zucksville), feeding it even more data to power its ad business.

Facebook Home tucks other apps out of sight (and thus out of mind) in a little drawer where they can easily be forgotten, and replaces homescreen and lockscreen widgets with Facebook and Instagram photos and updates. Even if they’re still technically available, all other social distractions are banished from this kingdom, with the exception of SMS — but even that is dressed up to look like a Facebook service as it is assimilated into the Chat Heads messaging game.

It can’t be long before those regular monthly updates Zuckerberg said would be coming to Home pile in even more Facebook sanctioned functionality — which, cuckoo like, will push out even more native and third party app offerings. A Home camera with built-in Instagram filters, a Home dialler with Facebook Messenger-powered VoIP, ‘Chat Envelopes’ popping up Facebook email notifications, Home Poke to send a self-destructing Cover Feed photo to selected buddies, maybe even ZuckFace stickers… It’s not hard to imagine the sort of additional functionality that will be brought in to flesh out — or rather, fully furnish — Home in the coming months, to ensure residents never feel the need to go out and patronise other establishments. At best, rival apps will get a cursory glance, seen through Home’s window.

The companies Facebook is seeking to move against here are, first and foremost, the free messaging apps such as Line which have been creeping into its social networking back yard. Line doesn’t just offer free SMS and VoIP; inside its mobile app is a whole world of other Line-branded apps and services, from stickers to games to chat forums to a social networking style profile page where friends can read your updates. This form of social entertainment messaging, powered by the lure of free messaging on the mobile phone and fun stuff like stickers, is a threat to Facebook’s dominance of mobile user’s time and Home is Zuckerberg’s savy answer to that challenge.

By creating a new layer atop the phone, Home pushes all other apps and services — but especially messaging apps and services — to the margins and puts itself in the very centre where mobile users can’t avoid it. Since Home bakes in free texting (and doubtless in time will add VoIP calling) the pull of other messaging services will diminish. As Home users’ friends’ faces pop up on their phone as Chat Heads Facebook piles on the peer pressure to use its messaging services, not someone else’s. That much is plain. But, ultimately, it’s not just messaging rivals that could lose out. If Home grabs a serious chunk of eyeballs — and Facebook keeps piling in new functionality — it’s going to be harder for other Android developers to be heard because their apps and services are going to take more effort to discover. They will now be second class citizens on Facebook Home phones. Home could therefore be bad news for mobile startups generally.

It’s possible Home will spark a new construction boom if other tech companies, large and small, try to create their own homes for their fan-bases (Twitter springs to mind). The issue with that is it’s a big resources challenge to build something that’s slick and stable enough to be the first point of contact on a device people use hundreds of times a day, and tempt them away from existing well-loved ‘homes’, like Samsung’s Galaxy universe of services. Or from a Google Now Home — if Google gets into the after sales launcher business itself. So small players are (again) at a disadvantage. Achieving any kind of serious reach is also going to be tough for all but the biggest, most sticky brands — so it may be more like a construction bust than a boom. As my colleague Sarah notes, launchers have been a minority hobby for the tech savvy, not a mass market pastime up to now.

Facebook has a huge advantage here in that it’s using its own huge mobile user base (it has some 680 million active mobile users) to virally push Home out. These mobile Facebookers will get a message suggesting they download Home and guiding them through the process. That’s very different to folk having to go seek out a launcher on an app store and download it. So while a tech giant like Rovio, say, could generate similar push for an ‘Angry Birds Home’ just by telling its existing app users about it, a new startup with a cool new service is going to have trouble being heard. Even more so in a Facebook Home-saturated Android landscape.

On the platform side, Android is the obvious winner — in the sense that it’s getting access to Home, while other platforms are not (yet). Whether Google is a winner or a loser is up for debate. Google Play and Search still live inside Home so even if Mountain View is uncomfortable with the extent of customisation that Facebook Home represents (and it’s not saying that — in fact it’s sort of trying to say the opposite) it’s a little too early for major warning klaxons to go off. If Zuck’s Home ends up extending the reach of Android then Google is still winning, even if Facebook wins too. Arguably Home could even inject new life into Android — powering a new phase of growth through a fresh wave of innovation to keep the platform surfing along ahead of the competition. Which is what Google’s statement is basically saying: Android’s flexibility is the key to its longevity. The platform can take on many guises, yet still keep the money flowing into Mountain View.

When it comes to iOS, Apple is highly unlikely to sanction such a full Facebook takeover so iPhone and iPad owners won’t be able to own Home. Not in the short term anyway. And that could cause some users to defect to Android, so Home could be bad news for Apple. That said, Home seems likely to appeal most to a younger demographic of Facebook obsessives who may be more likely to be Android users anyway for device price reasons. Ultimately, if Home is a huge success, Apple will have to come up with its own response (if it wants to really annoy Zuck, it could create Twitter’s Home on iOS). Apple has already integrated Facebook (and Twitter) into iOS — so it could deepen that integration to meet or neutralise Zuck’s challenge while still retaining the key levers of control over its platform. But these are all big ifs. For now Home feels fairly neutral for iOS.

The biggest platform loser created by Home is definitely Microsoft with its Windows Phone mobile OS. Facebook Home replicates and extends some of the functionality Microsoft baked into its mobile OS in an effort to create clear blue water between its would-be third ecosystem and the two dominant players: Android and iOS. If it’s a social phone you’re after, Home is now the obvious choice, not Windows Phone. A couple of Facebook-powered Live Tiles showing a few tiny photos coupled with apps that have social sharing options baked in are now competing with full screen photos/Facebook updates plus a social messaging layer piping your Facebook friends’ missives directly onto your phone so you don’t even have to dive into separate apps to chat.

Home makes Windows Phone even more redundant than it already is (and in smartphone marketshare terms it’s a very small player indeed). Before Facebook’s Home announcement Microsoft’s mobile OS was the de facto ‘Facebook phone’, the nearest thing you could get — yet it still hadn’t been able to break the Android iOS smartphone duopoly. What chance does it have now that there is a bona fide Facebook Phone that transforms many Android phones into Facebook feed delivery machines? Microsoft’s decision not to allow skins atop Windows Phone makes its platform the inflexible loser to Android’s winning ‘chameleon Houdini’.

On the phone hardware side, Home looks like good news for HTC (and — on the flip side — bad news for Android refusenik Nokia). The first phone with Home pre-loaded and fully baked in ‘out of the box’ is the HTC First. It’s not going to be the only Home phone, of course, but HTC getting in from the start is a win for it since it needs to make itself stand out. HTC is in a tough spot right now as it struggles to make itself heard in a Android smartphone space so dominated by Samsung’s Galaxy line of devices. Home gives it the something new to fight its big rival and rise above the Android crowd — albeit not for long, since the skin will be available for download to existing Android devices, including Samsung devices. The margin of differentiation Home offers any hardware maker is not huge.

There will apparently be some deeper integration for system notifications on Home-out-of-the-box-phones vs phones with the Home skin downloaded after purchase but again that doesn’t sound like a massive margin for difference. Still, HTC is in there from the get-go so may be able to build some momentum before Samsung makes the inevitable Galaxy Home phone — and sells even more Android-based smartphones.

Finally mobile users. Are they winners or losers? Right now, the Android user gets to feel like a winner since they get something new to choose from to put on their phone — and who doesn’t like novelty? The problem comes down the line, if Home ends up saturating the market and pushing out choice and innovation. We’re a long long way from that happening — and, even with Facebook’s huge user base, it’s still only a remote possibility. But it is a possibility. The Facebookification of the mobile web is a threat to openness, to choice, to privacy — but only if you care about those things. Many people just care about chatting to their friends and want the path of least resistance to do that. So in the long run, Home could mean mobile users lose out — even if they don’t know or care about what they’re missing.

But again, it’s a distant possibility. So long as Home remains opt in and enough people choose to eschew it there will still be choice in the mobile space — and that’s only a good thing.