Back when Microsoft was still Microsoft, it wouldn’t announce to its competitors, “We want to crush you.” Instead, its soothingly stated goal was to “embrace and extend” whatever the other guy was doing.
That’s what Facebook (FB:US) is trying with Facebook Home, the new software it’s launching this week for mobile phones running archrival Google’s Android operating system. Instead of taking on Google directly, Home aims to co-opt Android by covering it with a layer of Facebook content and services.
I’ve been using the new software since last week and find it useful and attractive. At the same time, it’s somewhat overbearing in controlling how you interact with your phone.
Facebook Home is a sort of mega-app that provides its own user interface atop Android. For the time being, it has no advertising, but the company made clear that ads will be part of its future.
The software will be available for free from the Google Play store April 12 and will also come pre-installed on some phones. I tested it on the appropriately named HTC (2498) First, which goes on sale in the U.S., also April 12, for $100 from AT&T. (T:US)
The Home experience starts with -- and in many ways is built around -- a feature called Cover Flow that commandeers the home screen.
Instead of the usual Android interface, or the customized versions that manufacturers like Samsung (005930) install, you see a scroll of photos from your friends, with their latest status updates superimposed.
I enjoyed being able to quickly flip through a series of updates, registering Facebook “likes” simply by double-tapping the screen. Once in a while, I’d open a comment box to type out a quick message without the need to launch a separate Facebook app.
Meanwhile, I received a stream of notifications as friends registered likes of my posts or shared new links and photos.
This people-centric approach resembles the “live tiles” Microsoft features in its Windows Phone operating system. But on Windows Phones your friends’ activities are just one element of the home screen; on Facebook Home, they’re the only element.
Where are all the Android apps?
They’re still there. But to get at them, you first have to tap your own picture on the home screen, then select Home’s app launcher. Not surprisingly, Facebook gets prominent placement here too, though you can add your own favorites as well.
While you can still summon a fuller display of apps with a finger swipe, the net effect is to diminish their importance by making them less visible and accessible. Facebook Home isn’t about running apps; it’s about running Facebook.
Even when you’re running another app, Facebook is never far away, thanks to an oddly named feature called Chat Heads. These are text-message alerts that you can read and respond to without leaving whatever app you happen to be using at the moment.
At least on my test phone, Facebook didn’t completely smother Android. For example, I still received pop-up notifications from my Google (GOOG:US) Now app about traffic conditions between my home and office.
But it turns out I could only see those alerts because Home had been pre-installed on the phone I was using. Facebook says users who install it themselves on one of the phones that will support it -- Samsung’s Galaxy S3, S4 and Note 2, and HTC’s One, One X and One X+ -- will only receive Facebook notifications, not alerts from other apps.
In the end, Facebook addicts will probably love Home for the same reason that non-Facebook addicts won’t: its single-minded focus on interacting not with apps but with friends.
Whether and how much you’ll like it will be directly proportional to your level of engagement with your social network.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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