Facebook Home And The Promise Of Android

If you’re an iPhone user, you might be feeling a little left behind, because Facebook launched an application called Facebook Home, touted by CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the “next version of Facebook.” In fact, you might be feeling this way if you’re an Android user, too. For now, only a handful of select devices can even run Home (officially) — notably missing from the lineup is Google’s Nexus 4, the latest in the lineup of Nexus-branded flagship Android phones — devices that users adopt in particular to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to new app releases.

But Facebook promised that more handsets will be supported in time, as will tablets. Well, only Android ones, that is.

It’s too soon to say whether Facebook Home will live up to the company’s claims and expectations of becoming the new way people interact with the social network, or whether it will go down only as a notable experiment on the social network’s part. If the latter, it won’t be a major loss to the company, as Facebook will continue to have access to data from a core group of heavy Facebook enthusiasts. It will learn what keeps users engaged, what posts and images catch their eye and their clicks, and, eventually, which advertisements do, too.

facebook-home4But to those who can’t download Facebook Home today because they’re using the “wrong” smartphone, it’s of small comfort to think that perhaps the product won’t ever really be as successful as Facebook promises. Because for users, what matters is not whether this grand roll of the dice pays off for Facebook itself – it’s whether you have the ability to participate in the game in the first place.

This is the challenge of the new mobile landscape.

Unlike the web, where the worst thing developers encountered was IE compatibility – and yes, that was bad – it was only a matter of time (and hair pulling and screaming) and energy to bring a new idea to everyone who had Internet access and a web browser. Because the web is built on open standards, this sort of thing is possible.

Facebook wouldn’t even be Facebook had this not been the case.

But mobile is a different story, and a potentially dangerous one in terms of progress and innovation, as Facebook Home today proves.

On the one side, you have an Android ecosystem that’s fragmented by operating system version. In fact, Google quietly changed the way it discloses that fragmentation. Now, instead of telling the developer community how many phones run Jelly Bean or Gingerbread, for instance, it tells them how many of those devices are used by people who download apps. It’s an attempt to paint a rosier picture of OS distribution patterns by focusing on the app-haves instead of the app have-nots. (Spoiler: there are a lot of people running old versions of Android out there.)

Then on the other side, there’s Apple. Because of its restrictions, Facebook Home will never be able to run as intended on iOS operating systems. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, to be clear. It’s just a statement. Apple deserves plenty of credit for helping technology become an interest of the mainstream – a group that felt its former interfaces, configurations, and command lines too complicated and confusing. Or worse, simply not fun. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but it radically altered the way that people interact with – and learned to love and care about – technology.

But if we’re giving Apple credit for sparking this trend, lets give them credit for potentially stalling progress here, too.

It’s only a few years into this new paradigm of computing, and things are already starting to feel a little dated. We’ve become accustomed to, bored with, and finally overrun by mobile applications. So the shift ahead of us is enabling new experiences – possibly those that put an app-centric interface secondary. Android is well on its way to enabling this, with its potential for customizations and widgets, as well as the deep hooks that apps can sink into the underlying operating system.

Apps like Facebook Home.

Facebook Home, however, is but the first high-profile example. A niche group Android users have been doing this for years on their own with third-party widgets, launchers, and replacements for core applications.

Android is not an ideal landscape overall. (See: fragmentation issues above. See also: app quality, developer revenue potential, etc.) In other words, this is a not a statement about who wins the larger war, it’s about who wins on this particular battlefront. That said, in terms of enabling a new mobile experience, Android is now more promising than iOS.

facebook-home2Of course, you may think that Facebook Home itself is a terrible, horrible thing that you would never consider installing on your own phone, and that’s just fine.

The point is, it’s a different idea. It’s not really an Android launcher, it’s only inspired by them. And even if you have no particular affinity for Facebook itself, you might for the next company that follows it. Because someone will. In fact, one already has: Korean messaging giant KakaoTalk just announced plans for a Facebook Home competitor of its own.

More will come.

And later, it won’t be just about direct copycats like KakaoTalk, or the third-party developers promising DIY “Home-like” experiences, either. Facebook Home’s existence speaks to a world where developers will be prompted to think beyond applications and the isolated experiences they deliver. With the layering, and overall well-designed nature of the Facebook Home feature called “Chat Heads,” we’ve been shown the potential to build entirely different ways of interacting with our devices. Period.

This is the path of innovation. Someone takes a bold step forward with a new idea. Eyebrows are raised, pundits opine, testers review, but ultimately a thing dies or lives in the hands of the everyday users. You.

Facebook Home itself might not make it. It challenges the status quo by making other applications less important than Facebook. That’s a radical enough idea that it could easily fail.

But the damage – whether Facebook Home succeeds or not – is already done. Facebook Home is something else. Wired called it an apperating system. That’s perfect. It exists somewhere between apps and phones. It dug out a whole new space, now begging to be exploited, experimented upon, and filled with new ideas.

And it did this on Android.

Asked if Facebook Home could ever come to iOS, Zuckerberg said, “anything that happens with Apple is going to happen with partnership. Google’s Android is open so we don’t have to work with them.”

No one had to “work with” the web, either.