Facebook Inc. has devised an elegant strategy for trying to leapfrog Google Inc. in the smartphone wars: use the company's own software against it.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new smartphone application, Facebook Home, on Thursday. Home is essentially a super-powered app that runs on any phone powered by Google's Android operating system.
But rather than remain passively in the background when not in use, Home takes over most aspects of the phone's user interface. Instead of a lock screen, users see a scroll of photos and updates from their Facebook newsfeed. Common functions, such as text messaging, will be accessible through the Facebook Home interface.
"What would it feel like if our phones were designed around people, not apps?" said Mr. Zuckerberg, who described Facebook Home as a way to put personal interactions at the forefront of the smartphone experience.
The move raises the stakes in an already fierce battle between the search engine and the social network over control of the mobile Internet, which is perhaps the fastest-growing area in personal computing. Both companies have so far struggled to generate significant revenue from mobile advertising, but expect it to become an increasingly vital revenue source.
For weeks, many observers have speculated that Facebook would launch its own phone. But instead the company is piggybacking on Google's Android operating system, which is designed to be "open," meaning anyone can customize it. By creating Facebook Home, the company can access hundreds of millions of mobile devices without spending its own money on creating a new phone or operating system.
"This is a great experiment for Facebook – it's much lower risk than developing a phone or an operating system of its own," said Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at Ovum.
"And if it turns out not to be successful, there will be little risk or loss to Facebook," he said. "It will allow Facebook to track more of a user's behaviour on devices, and present more opportunities to serve up advertising, which is Facebook's main business model."
Among the software's features is a tool called Chatheads that places little hovering icons on the screen showing the faces of a user's Facebook friends. The user can click or drag the icons anywhere on the screen to quickly share content or exchange messages.
Ami Vora, a Facebook product manager, said the Home app initially won't have ads built in, but the company expects to roll them out in the future.
In many ways, Facebook Home is an app that could only exist on Android. Competing smartphone makers such as Apple Inc. and Research in Motion Ltd. tend to have much more stringent restrictions on what third-party developers can do to the overall look and feel of the operating system software. Google, on the other hand, essentially gives Android away and lets other manufacturers customize it with almost no restrictions.
"This latest collaboration demonstrates the openness and flexibility that has made Android so popular," a Google spokesman said. "And it's 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."
But the extent to which Facebook Home could reduce the usage of those Google services among users is still unclear. Additionally, Facebook is using its Home software as a way to make inroads with phone manufacturers – much the same way Google did with Android. During Thursday's announcement, Mr. Zuckerberg also said his company is working with a number of big-name manufacturers, including Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Sony Corp., on devices pre-loaded with Facebook Home.
The first of these devices is an Android phone from HTC Corp. called HTC First. The $99 (U.S.) phone is the result of a partnership among Facebook, HTC and AT&T Inc.
Facebook, front and centre
Unlike most smartphone apps, Facebook Inc.'s new app, Home, effectively takes over the phone, making the Facebook experience the central focus. Home only runs on phones powered by Google Inc.'s Android operating system, because other manufacturers don't usually allow third parties to customize user interfaces to the same extent as Android. The software will be available for download April 12, and will likely have an impact on several players in the smartphone wars:
The social network gets to release a piece of software that turns any Android phone into a Facebook-branded experience. Even if the software proves to be a failure with consumers, Facebook will have spent far less on developing it than if it had tried to build a mobile operating system from scratch.
Google has for years boasted about how "open" Android is, meaning it is easy for anyone to customize the software – something Apple Inc. and Research in Motion Ltd. don't allow. The openness of Android is the main reason so many smartphone makers use the operating system. Now one of Google's biggest competitors is taking advantage of Android's openness to establish an immediate foothold in the smartphone market.
Once a rising star in the smartphone world, HTC Corp. has seen its prominence fade a bit as rivals such as Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. have released critically and commercially successful Android phones. But as the first manufacturer to release a Facebook-branded phone, HTC gets a moment to itself in the spotlight before a slew of new phones from Apple, Samsung and RIM hit the market.
Smartphone users who do nothing but check Facebook all day can now download a user interface that lets them do just that. If it turns out to be buggy, ad-riddled or just plain not good, they can get rid of it without much hassle.