Facebook unveils Home: A love and hate story

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Facebook unveils Home: A love and hate story

What exactly has been boosting Facebook’s share price in the last few days, eventually leading to a three-percent rise after a disastrous IPO last year? The long-awaited news came yesterday, as Mark Zuckerberg gathered the press for the launch of Facebook’s next instalment on mobile devices. Rumors had it that Facebook wanted to launch their own branded phone in a partnership with HTC. The social network giant denied these as it introduced Facebook Home. The new app should hit the Google Play Store on April 12th for a limited selection of devices, notably excluding Apple’s iPhone and RIM’s Blackberry.

Facebook’s headquarters were jammed with journalists last night, more out of curiosity than excitement for most. Facebook hasn’t been much of a game changer lately and news of a Facebook phone had raised doubts. The charismatic CEO has expressed his ambitious point of view on the next big thing for Android: Facebook’s mobile experience can’t be limited to a single device. With over 250 million mobile users of the Facebook app, and an ever-growing smartphone sector, it was crucial for the social network’s penetration of the market to evolve. With Facebook Home, Zuckerberg wants to “change computing” as we know it, and emphasise people on phones.

So what is Facebook Home? It’s not a phone, it’s not an app, and it’s not a new Operating System. It’s what Android users call a “launcher” and what has made such a success of Google’s operating system over the years. Facebook Home will allow users to dress Android up and make it look… well, neat. With this new stance on mobile devices, Facebook wants you to spend more time monitoring your feeds in an intuitive way, and less time navigating through your apps and menus.

The “advanced” Facebook app should only be available for six phones (Android 4.X Jelly Bean devices) for the moment, of which only four are currently sold. The rumors did get something right though, as HTC’s new smartphone – the HTC First – will run the Facebook app on its launch on 12th April. This points out an ongoing war of words between developers for Google’s operating system. There is no longer an Android system, but several alternatives to it, Facebook Home being yet another metaphorical grenade thrown up in Google’s face.

Samsung is literally ignoring Google and developing its own apps, HTC is rebranding and most likely partnering with Facebook, China’s overwhelming number of Android devices do not run Google Play Store… and the list goes on and on! Lately, it seems as if Google’s native OS only exists on its flagship phone the Nexus. And that’s some news Google has a hard time sinking in.

Not so surprisingly, the search giant from Mountain View was not present at the press conference yesterday, and has stated the Nexus will not be one of the phones compatible with Home, despite it being a Jelly Bean device. Experts even predict tougher measures from Google towards its “blue” competitor, namely pushing the app out of the Play Store for infringement of terms and agreements. If Facebook does monetize Home and the variety of apps coming along with it, or introduce its own app store – such as Amazon – there’s no doubting the road to fragmentation will further mark Android’s course.

Google remains diplomatic on these issues, as it commented yesterday on the launch of the app: “This […] demonstrates the openness and flexibility that has made Android so popular.”They described it as a “win for users who want a customized Facebook experience from Google Play — the heart of the Android ecosystem — along with their favourite Google services like Gmail, Search, and Google Maps”

This latest move from Facebook does seem like an overall success, and might not be so limited to a certain demographic after all. But other concerns have been raised as per usual for a Facebook product; as Home will be able to track you more efficiently for targeted advertising, privacy is once again at stake. Being from France myself, I can assure you the debate over the “right to be forgotten” has been heating up political and business debates. 2012 saw a rise of 42% in the numbers of complaints to the French data protection agency CNIL. The two biggest companies concerned by these complaints are no other than Google and Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he was able to market users’ information to advertisers and the clear focus of Home on tracking and advertising already raises concerns. Google is also facing heavy criticism, yet the company’s CSR and overall strategy enables it to clear off reputation issues. The latest instalment of Google’s search engine, Google Now is one of these examples. Google knows so much about you that your phone and tablet are now able to predict what you want and need. That is a scary artificial intelligence that somehow resembles our fears of technology taking over.

If Facebook Home isn’t packed with glitches, and these reputation issues prove to be a less big of a deal, then yes, I predict a bright future for Zuck’s company. It has handy features, looks great and could be a game changer with a new approach to computing and mobile experience where Facebook is “the soul of your phone”. But this limit to high-end devices, exclusivity to Android, and Google’s stubborn point of view could also prove Home to be a very small addition to the Facebook experience. I was looking forward to testing it on April 12th, but having turned to the other side of the Force with a Google Nexus 4, I guess I won’t get to share my entire life with two of the biggest information companies out there. Bummer!

Alexandre Verpoort, Research Analyst Intern

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