The journalists, analysts and camera crews queued up in a chilly rain at Facebook's Menlo Park, California, headquarters to get the first look at Facebook's new home on Android - the long-rumored Facebook Phone.
The Hype Was Heavy
Would it be new "skin" software designed to put Facebook front and center on any Android device? Or an actual device in of itself - the rumor mill suggested HTC - built from the ground up to feature the social networking giant. Or would it be something completely new and unexpected?
Everyone wanted to know. Heck, the local newsradio station - not known for its tech savvy - gushed breathlessly about the event - right before talking about President Obama's visit to the Bay Area.
But when Mark Zuckerberg walked on stage, it became clear we're talking about both! "Today we're finally going to talk about the Facebook phone," Zuckerberg said. But that phone, the HTC First, is really just a reference model for the best integration of the Facebook Home software that can be downloaded onto any modern Android phone (starting April 12).
What Is Facebook Home?
According to Zuckerberg, Facebook Home consists of a few key capabilities designed to put people, not apps, first. "Today, our phones are designed aroundapps, not people" Zuckerberg said. "And we want to flip that around." He compared the change to adding Newsfeed to Facebook's website, where people started consuming about twice as much content overnight, he said. "We want to bring this experience right to your phone, and deliver it to as many poeple as possible."
There are three key components: Cover Feed, Chat Heads and Notifications.
Cover Feed: Replacing the home and/or lock screen of an Android device, it gives you an immersive experience from the moment you turn on your phone, said Adam Mosseri, Facebook's director of product. Instead of seeing a clock and maybe a snippet of a notification, you see your Facebook Open Graph stories with large images cycling across the screen. News shares, status updates (use the poster's cover photo as the background) are visible right from the get got. You can do a long press to see the whole picture or swipe to get to the next one. You can even add comments right from the home screen, seen below.
Chat Heads: These little round bubbles with the images of your friends shown below are the metaphor for Facebook Home's way of keeping you up to date on what your friends are saying. Incorporating Facebook messaging and texting, you just tap on the Head to join the conversation. (Group conversations smuch all the participant's pictures into the bubble, slightly awkwardly.) The key here is that Chat Heads show up everywhere on the phone, not just in a dedicated app. They're always available - the little Heads show up in the corner of the screen no matter what else you're doing, and follow along when you move to a new app. (You can just flick them away if you want to get rid of them.)
Notifications: If Chat Heads are about connecting to what's important to you, Zuckerberg said, Notifications are there to make sure you don't miss critical information - along with the name and face of the person who's sending you the message. Unfortunately, with the download version at least, Facebook Home will not support notifications of emails, but you can still use the native Android notification bar. It's not as pretty, but it's still effective - something may not matter to high-school kids, but it may to the older professionals who also make up a big part of Facebook's member base.
Finally, Facebook Home adds a new app launcher, for when you still want to use your phone the old-fashioned way. Apps are really important too, so we wanted to make it just as easy to get to your apps. The app launcher is just one swipe away from your home or lock screen.
Many, but not all, of these features can be switched on or off, the company said.
How Big A Deal Is Facebook Home?
While Facebook home is not a complete mobile operating system, it's not some lightweight app, either. "We're not building a phone, and we're not building an operating system, but we're also building something a lot deeper than just an app," Zuckerberg said. "We wanted this to feel like system software, not just an app that your run. We feel like theres a higher bar for that…"
That's critical, because people spend a lot of time on Facebook on their mobile phones. Some 20% of the time people spend on their smartphones is spent with Facebook - 25% if you include Instragram, the company said. And that's three times as much as with any other app.
Still, while Zuckerberg claimed that people look at Facebook 10-12 times a day, they look at the home screen of their phone 100 times a day. Facebook Home brings the social network much closer to the user - and could be expected to seriously up Facebook's engagment time for those who use it.
It also expands on Facebook's Mobile First mantra to what Zuckerberg called "Mobile Best." "We think this is the best version of Facebook there is."
The Facebook Phone
Facebook Home will be available for free download from the Google Play store on April 12, but that's only part of the story. Facebook Home is also the HTC First (seen on the left, below), available the same day for $99.99 exclusively from AT&T - pre-orders start today.
As the first phone with Facebook Home built in, the HTC First offers deeper integration than the downloadable version. The key, Zuckerberg said, is that users don't have to download anything or sign in to anything to get started. In addition, the built-in integration means Facebook Home can (unlike the downloadable version) incorporate notifications from other apps, such as email or Spotify. The email issue, particularly, will be a big deal to some people.
What's Next For Facebook Home?
The April 12 launch date is only the beginning for Facebook Home. Zuckerberg promised that like all Facebook software, it will be updated monthly (not yearly like mobile operating systems). Updates will likely expand Cover Feed to include video, group joins, friending stories and other actions.
Another thing to expect? Ads. While Zuckerberg said there would not be ads in Cover Feed at launch, he didn't dispute a question that they could be added at a later date.
It also makes sense to expect more smartphones with Facebook Home built in. The company made no mention of an exclusive arrangement with HTC or AT&T. The company also promised a tablet version of Facebook home within the next few months. As for a version of Facebook Home for the iPhone and iPad, Zuckerberg was non-committal. That will require working with Apple, he said, in ways that talking to Google wasn't necessary to do the Android version.
And that could actually make some waves in the mobile platform wars. "I actually think this is really good for Android," Zuckerberg said. Even though there are more Android phones out there, he explained, a lot of people do their best work on iphone first. "This could bring more innovation to Android."
Facebook will be working to lead that. "This is a deeply technical problem, and its also a deeply social problem," Zuckerberg said, adding that his company is uniquely positioned to deal with that combination.
Images courtesy of Facebook. Lead image by Fredric Paul.