Commentary

Facebook Home -- Or, The Return Of Skins ('Memba Them?)

So, I’m a little bummed that I bought a Droid Razr, because it may be a long time before I can go Home -- Facebook Home, that is.

As was announced yesterday, the-Facebook-phone-that-isn’t, called Facebook Home, will run on the Android platform, but, in the near term, will only run on a selection of phones from HTC and Samsung, and soon, some other hardware makers overseas.

I really want to try it out, because I couldn’t tell, from the demos, whether I was looking at a nice little alteration to the Facebook mobile experience, or a game-changer in the making. Ingeniously enough, Facebook has squeezed itself into a small but crucial portion of the phone experience that has been overlooked – the home screen - while at the same time owning the best piece of real estate on the phone, all without creating a separate operating system, or going into the hardware business. “We’re not building a phone and we’re not building an operating system but we’re also building something that’s a whole lot deeper than just an ordinary app,” Mark Zuckerberg said.

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Essentially, Facebook Home becomes the handset’s new skin. But this alteration of the smartphone experience was described by Zuckerberg yesterday as being as much a philosophical change as a technical one. “What would it look like if --  instead of our phones being designed around apps first and then just being able to have some interactions with people inside those apps --  we flipped that around and made it so that our phones were designed around people first, and then you could also interact with apps when you wanted to,” he said. It’s an acknowledgement of how social interaction has come to dominate the mobile experience.

Indeed, while the skin basically is set up to put the NewsFeed (renamed the CoverFeed in this configuration) front and center on a user’s smartphone, apps are only one swipe away. 

You’ve no doubt noticed my continual use of the term “skin” here. Isn’t that so 20th century? For the kids in the audience, I suppose I should explain. Way back in the 1990s, when the Internet was but a tadpole, there was a lot of buzz around skins -- covers on browsers, sponsored by various and sundry media companies and advertisers -- which served as an outer wrap.  While they still exist -- in fact, my son has lovingly put a “South Park” skin on my Chrome browser -- in the end they weren’t nearly as big a deal as we thought they might be.

Of course, everything looks really, really clear in the rearview mirror. As far as skins go, who among us wanted some brand to dominate our entire online day?

But then there are examples from my Internet past that show that sometimes big announcements only become big in hindsight. Here’s one: It was 1997, and a bunch of us reporter types had been invited down to the headquarters of America Online. (This was back when reporters wrote stuff for paper publications that had lots of advertising. They also had travel budgets.) The news of the day included the launch of something called AOL Instant Messenger, which Steve Case demo-ed by live chatting with someone somewhere else in the building.

Now, you’d think that we all would go running from the room, to pick up the nearest available ancient landline, or dial-up our creaky modems, shouting “Stop the presses!” to our editors. But no. We thought it was cool, but what no one got at the time -- maybe not even Steve Case  -- was that we were looking at what was probably the first social tool for the masses. We didn’t realize what we were seeing.

And so it is with Facebook Home. What is clearly in Facebook’s favor here are the numbers. Even without Facebook Home being the predominant experience on anyone’s phone -- until launch a week from today -- Facebook and Instagram make up more than 25% of mobile usage time. Building an uber-app like Home can only push that statistic northward. Though ads were never mentioned, the immersiveness of the Home experience also bodes well for marketers, if the app gets the reach Facebook is looking for.

And building Home off the Android platform -- instead of creating some proprietary Facebook OS, or even partnering with Apple -- is the best route toward that reach. Android is an open platform and the predominant worldwide mobile OS. To throw one statistic at you, according to IDC, 75% of the phones shipped worldwide in Q3 2012, carried Android. The thinking at Facebook  has to be that if Home becomes desirable enough, Apple, too, may have to eventually cave and offer the app.

Given the complexities of the cell phone industry, we will have a number of ways to tell if Facebook Home is gaining traction. One will be if sales take off for phones that will ship with Home installed -- HTC and AT&T will start offering one for just under $100 next Friday. Another will be the number of downloads of the app on the existing phones that it will be offered on. And then there’s the third: if those mobile share numbers for Facebook and Instagram start to skyrocket.

Keep an eye on Facebook Home. Just a skin or a game-changer? I’ve no idea.

(We’ve just posted the agenda for our upcoming OMMA Social, to be held during Internet Week in New York on May 20. Take a look.)

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