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Facebook Home's brilliant, disruptive, and, well, disruptive experience
It’s the circle of mobile product development life.
(Feel free to sing along.)
A company comes up with a new way of interacting with phones and mobile apps, and it’s a huge success. Users take to it so completely that they start to engage with their phones in brand new ways. These new and unexpected user habits inspire developers to create the next great innovation. Users embrace it. The cycle renews. Analysts use the word “disruption” a lot.
It’s a nice, balanced system with many practical benefits to all involved. Many phone developers wind up buying themselves a Tesla S or a BMW M5, for example.
Apple gave the Cycle a hard shove when they released the iPhone in 2007. In the past year, a number of other companies have made big contributions of their own, releasing what might be termed “post-iPhone” innovations: ideas that came about not by observing Apple, but by observing iPhone users and learning about how they use those devices.
Facebook Home isn’t a new phone; it’s just piece of free software on the Google Play store that you can download and install on many flagship Android devices. Its purpose isn’t to make your phone better. It’s only here to make your phone into a better Facebook tool.
And yet it completely spins the phone experience around. It’s such a thorough reframing of Android, and represents such a significant pivot of the relationship between the user and the device, that it sure merits the “post-iPhone innovation” label.
The two central ideas of Facebook Home are utter bullseyes: obliterate the phone’s traditional lockscreen, and stop making the user think about apps as the hub of their whole experience. When you wake your Home-ified Android device, you’re immediately presented with something useful: a pretty slideshow montage of your friends’ Facebook posts. Their messages, likes, and responses to your activity appear as a little stack of alerts before you even touch anything.
If you’ve set a locking scheme, Home won’t allow you to drill any deeper into your device of Facebook content until you satisfy whatever gatekeeper you’ve set. But once you’re past that, you can flick through all of this fresh content as though it were a (tiny) color magazine.
(With no ads.)
(Yet. Mark Zuckerberg says that those little bottleflies are coming eventually.)
Well, regardless: Facebook Home is a far prettier and easier way to interact with the service than any of the company’s mobile or desktop apps. More than that, Home puts your social map at the center of the experience. When you’re in another Android app, and you tap your phone’s Home button, you’re taken straight back to the Facebook Home environment.
Bullseye. People don’t take their phones out of their pockets to admire how nicely they’ve arranged their app icons. They unholster the weapon because they want to do something with it. Why not put that Something right at the surface?
I wouldn’t say that most people would want Facebook to be the “front desk” of their phone. Nonetheless, it’s completely on point with what all of the other post-iPhone devices are doing. Windows Phone’s home screen is populated with “live tiles”: containers filled with actual content, delivered and refreshed by installed apps. Blackberry continues to define itself as an effective communications tool, and uses a unified messaging center as its majordomo.
Conventional phone features are still easy to reach. Your Facebook avatar is at the bottom of the screen, within easy reach of your thumb. Swipe from there and up to the right to return to the app you just left. Swipe straight up to get to a familiar-looking Android app launcher. Presumably where you’ll keep that weird app icon with the picture of an old-timey telephone handset on it.
Facebook Home’s app launcher doesn’t support widgets, though. That’s a major drag; widgets are part of what makes an Android phone so cool.
Swipe to the left to go to Facebook Messenger. No coolness on display here: it just launches the standard Facebook Messenger app.
But for messaging, Home has a better trick waiting up its sleeve: Chat Heads. Your conversation with someone via Facebook messaging or SMS is represented by a little circle that contains your friend’s social avatar. A Chat Head hovers over everything you do everywhere in the phone. You can reposition it just by sliding it around.
Yup, it’s still there when you leave the “Home” environment and use a third-party app. Holy cats, does that sound annoying and silly! Shut up. It’s brilliant. On any device, a chat is an ongoing, but sporadic, conversation. On a desktop chat client, that’s not a big problem; you can keep your chat window off to the side of the window that’s holding your main focus.
But chat on a phone is terrible. There you are, reading your book on the bus, and you need to keep dumping out of Kindle to participate in the endless Russian novel of combined tragedy, emotion and despair that is “four friends trying to choose a restaurant.”
Chat Heads keeps that thread in a circle in the margin of your book, with all of your Heads collapsed into a single stack to conserve space. Its badge updates when there’s a new reply. Just tap the circle and a reply form is laid on top of whatever app you’re in. Never has it been so easy to get stuff done while communicating that you had Chinese for lunch, and you would prefer that tonight’s cuisine came from somewhere west of the prime meridian.
I love, love, love the ideas in Facebook Home. It continues the forward direction of mobile interface design. And it’s so pretty that I want to take off my bifocals and pointedly ask Mr. Facebook if he might have cheated off one of his nerdier classmates.
(Answer: not really. But Facebook Home was designed using Apple’s Quartz Composer tool. It’s a system that makes it easy to prototype all kinds of motion graphics. Though it’s an Apple-only product, app designers often use it to completely pre-visualize an interface and its transitions before committing to code, no matter where the final app is going to run. Interesting sidebar.)
Facebook Home’s concepts might be bullseyes, but the product itself isn’t close to a home run. It’s far too disruptive.
Ah. Yes, I should clarify. Sometimes “disruptive” means “an idea so insightful and innovative that it upsets what was once a very stable and predictable marketplace.” But in this case, it means “Every phone task that is not Facebook-related is harder with this thing installed.”
So: Facebook Home is the bad kind. But if you do indeed think of your Android phone as little more than support hardware for Facebook, you’ll like it a lot.
If you do other things? Mmm. Better stick with Facebook’s stock Android apps.
Facebook Home is free, but it’s terribly expensive. You lose Google Now, Android’s terrific personal concierge app. Voice commands are gone. So are all of the little tweaks that allow you to tailor your phone exactly to your own needs. Instead, you’ll have a Facebook phone, here to serve Facebook for the glory of Facebook, Facebook ever after, for Facebook and Facebook. A-Zuck.
Facebook Home is also limited — perhaps unfairly so — by the company’s “ick factor.”
I’ve been using Home for about a week. Not on my own phone. God, no. On a loaner phone that I had in the office. Which I completely wiped of all personal data and then restored to factory settings. It had never seen my own SIM card or known my phone number. For good measure, before installing Home, I turned off all Android services, and deactivated GPS and all other location services.
This phone knows my Facebook ID. And that, my friends, is all I’m willing to trust Facebook Home with, until millions of users can demonstrate that I can trust it with anything more. I don’t think anybody should instinctively believe that data on a Facebook Home-enhanced phone is safe.
Facebook isn’t run by pirates. But their consistent philosophy is “personal information should naturally flow downhill into the public pool” and its default settings reflect that. Once you realize that Facebook (through a default setting or worse) has done something you didn’t want it to do, information has already been compromised.
Seriously, there’s a trust issue. The first time I replied to a message on this Facebook Home-enhanced phone using Facebook’s stock Android messaging app, it invited me to activate location services and tag that message with my location. The dialog box contained two buttons: “On” would tag every message I make and also tell Facebook where I tend to hang out. “Off” would disable the feature.
It doesn’t worry me that the app had already highlighted “On” as the default choice. What worries me was that “Off” button was greyed out and nonresponsive. No joke. I had to let the app turn it on, and then switch it off manually.
With any other company, I’d suspect a bug, or a clumsy UI. But this…is Facebook.
I don’t know for sure that there was some sort of meeting at the company where someone suggested “If we make the user think it’s a bug in the app, they’ll probably just give up trying to make it ‘work’ and let us turn on location tagging.”
However, I also don’t know for sure that this didn’t happen, however.
Come on. How sure are you? I never have these thoughts about an Apple product. I’m even (warily) comfortable with Google at this point.
So the biggest problem with Home could be that it makes a slightly skeevy company look even more skeevy. Clearly an area that Facebook needs to improve, ideally by, I dunno…doing fewer skeevy things, I guess?
Facebook Home points out a risk to Google’s brand. Facebook’s the second huge company (after Amazon) to build a product around Android that completely strips away Google’s identity.
I reckon if Facebook Home has any kind of impact on Google, however, it’ll be a good one. First, Home is living proof of the power and flexibility of Android. Home isn’t just a facelift. It fundamentally redefines the entire experience. The power that allowed Facebook to kick apps out of the center of the phone experience is the same power that allowed me to change the notification system on my Samsung phone a month ago.
Secondly, although I’m sure that the fine men and women in Mountain View, California wish they could turn on a hit network sitcom and see a back-illuminated Google logo on the lids of every laptop in the shot, Google makes money whether people know they’re using a Google product or not. Facebook Home doesn’t look anything like Android. Yet its users will still be buying apps, music, video, and books from the Google Play store. And when they drive, they’ll still be sending live traffic data to Google Maps. Every minute spent in Android increases the value of that user’s Google ID…to the user, and to Android.
(And how is this not skeevy? Because Google’s controls are usually transparent, and Google Maps is a typical Google transaction: “Give us access to your location data and we’ll give you the best live global mapping and routing service in the world, with probably the best points-of-interest database.” I don’t get the same “keep them inside the casino, losing money” vibe from Google that I do from Facebook.)
The other win for Google? The fact that Facebook was able to add Chat Heads and other features to Android proves that a third party developer can do it, too. Any Android app can draw content on top of other apps. I’m hoping that a clever team steals this idea and produces a Chat Heads-style IM and SMS client for Android soon.
I hope Apple steals it, too. It’s a great idea. Google and Microsoft and the others benefited from watching Apple’s work. Apple’s entitled to do the same, and the whole world is waiting for Apple to produce a post-iPhone phone of its own.
All of its competitors defined their phones during the Obama administration. Apple defined the iPhone back when George W. Bush was President.
Yikes. That’s not as bad as realizing that the doctor giving you your physical is younger than you. But it’s not a fun thing, right?