For a company with a billion customers, Facebook can be quite stealthy. Its latest product, Facebook Home, could convert tens of millions of Android-powered phones into Facebook portals constantly connected to its services simply by encouraging users to install a piece of software. By doing so, Facebook has wheeled a Trojan Horse into the middle of the mobile market.
The idea behind Facebook Home is to make connecting with your friends and loved ones the primary focus of your mobile phone. Instead of showing you a static picture when your phone is “locked”, Facebook Home shows you the latest updates from your friends. You can quickly swipe through updates and reply to them without having to open a separate app.
Facebook Home also completely takes over your messaging, seamlessly weaving together text messages and Facebook messages so that you never have to care how you’re communicating — you’re just constantly connected. You can continue chatting regardless of whether you’re using other apps on your phone. The messages will pop up as small “bubbles” above whatever you’re doing — watching a video or surfing the Web — until you reply or dismiss them.
Rumours of a Facebook phone have been swirling for years. Approximately 600m of Facebook’s 1bn active users access the service from a mobile phone. Yet Facebook has struggled to make the same amount of revenue from these users as it does from its traditional customers, who access its services via their computers. It even issued an amendment to its initial public offering filing, warning potential investors of this danger before it listed it last year.
The prevailing logic was that by launching its own phone, Facebook could control the entire experience and not have to play third fiddle to the device manufacturers and the network operators. From that perspective, Facebook Home is a neat shortcut around all that tedious heavy lifting — a Facebook phone without any of the risk and pain of getting into hardware.
But there is an even neater shortcut hidden in the Home strategy. Why build an entire mobile operating system when you can just piggyback on the world’s biggest one, Android? That way you get access to hundreds of millions of potential customers while focusing on your core skills: social networking software.
How has Facebook managed this? By exploiting a mechanism known as “skinning” that is built into Android. Home is really just several different mobile apps linked together and given special prominence by the phone’s own underlying software. This mechanism exists to allow phone manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and HTC to add their own branding and flavour to a standard Android installation.
Unlike many manufacturers, Facebook has been careful not to modify, or “fork”, the underlying Android operating system. This means that installing Home will not interfere with a customer’s ability to update their phone to the latest version whenever they choose. Forked code requires that each update be painstakingly integrated into your own flavour of Android, delaying updates and annoying customers. Home avoids that completely — floating serenely above the operating system.
The launch of Facebook Home presents Google — which owns Android — with an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, anything that makes Android more popular or useful is obviously good for the Android ecosystem and therefore good for Google. On the other hand, Google has its own social networking platform, Google Plus, currently engaged in a battle to the death with Facebook.
Even more worrying for Google, Facebook Home completely changes the emphasis of any phone on which it’s installed. Android phones traditionally have the Google Search bar at the top of the home screen. Facebook Home does away with the bar completely, making searching into a three-step process.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was at pains to stress the company isn’t intentionally beggaring Google Search: “We want it to be additive,” he said. “The swapping out of Google’s functionality isn’t really something we want to do here.”
But Facebook’s intentions are not relevant. By making its services the focus of a customer’s phone, it steals attention from Google. Since Google’s entire business model is about capturing that attention and converting it into clicks on adverts, this is a direct threat to its profitability. It is like biological evolution: a better-adapted animal does not need to prey directly on its competitors in order to push them into extinction, it can just eat all their food before they can reach it.
And it is not just Google that might be in trouble. Facebook plans to enable free voice calls via Home in the near future, which directly undermines the already stressed mobile phone networks. Revenue from voice calls is already falling. If Facebook Home becomes as popular as its parent brand, those revenues could halve within months.
Of course, all these dire outcomes assume that Facebook Home will become immediately and wildly popular. That’s hardly certain. Many people, particularly those older than 25, would not want their phones completely taken over by Facebook. Even if millions do install Home, they may be annoyed when Facebook begins advertising to them right from their home screens. Zuckerberg has admitted that this is the company’s long-term plan.
But whether or not the plan succeeds, you have to admire the audacity and cunning of this still very young company and its baby-faced chief executive. Facebook Home is the equivalent of sauntering into the middle of the old boys’ poker game and raising the bet with an IOU. Competitors have underestimated Facebook many times in the past. They should not do so again. — (c) 2013 Mail & Guardian
- Alistair Fairweather is GM for digital operations at the Mail & Guardian
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