What Apple's Jony Ive Can Learn From Facebook Home

Facebook Home, which Facebook has described both as "a new way to turn your Android phone into a great, living, social phone" and "the best version of Facebook there is," won't be available on Apple's iPhone anytime soon, if ever. Does Apple care?

Probably not, although it should. More than an app, though not quite a operating system, Facebook Home delivers a highly visual, system-wide presentation of real-time social data that also makes innovative use of touch-based gestures. In the process, it makes iOS look, well, dated.

Jony Ive, call your office.

Why Apple Shouldn't Worry About Home

In the short term, Apple has relatively little to fear. Tech blogger and Apple enthusiast Dan Frommer, for instance, argues that Apple retains a "big lead in hardware and OS quality, apps, media, and customer service" — and that as a result, we shouldn't expect to see iPhone users bolt to Facebook phones, at least not yet. Instead, he figures Facebook Home will likely appeal to buyers of low-end Android devices.

(See also: Facebook Home: A Slick Interface & A Big Challenge)

Mobile analyst Benedict Evans told me:

The barriers to switching between platforms are pretty large: a slightly easier way to access Facebook Messenger won't be enough to make people make the switch. That's particularly the case for iPhone, which has a 70-80% repurchase intention rate.

Similarly, from Asymco analyst Horace Dediu:

In the phone business there are three things which define a product's volume: distribution, distribution and distribution. Home is a more ambitious version of an app (designed to extract more from the user) and so it is more constrained in all three areas. It needs "permission" from device makers, platform vendors and operators in order to proliferate. End user installation is an option but it's not likely to drive large volumes.

(See also: Facebook Home Could Be A Pain, Unless You Really Love Facebook)

Dediu's quick analysis of Home leads him to believe that it could drive up to 10 million units a year. That's not nothing, of course, but still a pittance compared to the approximately 48 million iPhones Apple sold just last quarter.

Why Apple Should Worry About Home

Home, however, could have a significant long-term impact on iPhone's app-centric user interface. This might be to Apple's benefit.

(See also: Why Apple Really, Really Needs To Kill It With iOS 7)

At yesterday's Home launch, Mark Zuckerberg oh-so-delicately suggested that iOS — iPhone's operating system — is looking a bit out-of-touch these days: 

Instead of our phones being designed around apps first, what if we flip that around? What if our phones were designed around people first?

Indeed, Home's innovative system-wide presentation and highly visual user experience may even serve as a guide to Apple design guru Jonathan Ive. 

Facebook Home effectively takes over a device's lock screen, populating it in real-time with the user's Newsfeed, photo stream and Facebook-sanctioned notifications. Updates from the user's Facebook contacts, or a Facebook message, for example, are revealed instantly no matter what app is active through the clever use of "chat heads."

Chat heads also supports texting and messaging from within another (non-Facebook) app. Facebook Home's notifications include the individual's profile picture and can be displayed in a card-like fashion. 

These are visually appealing features which are not available in the iPhone. 

Here's Zuckerberg belaboring the point yesterday:

We're not building a phone, and we're not building an OS — we're building an experience that's deeper than any other app.

Apple Is Playing Catch-Up

You have to assume that Ive and Apple's iOS design team are poring over every detail Zuckerberg and company revealed yesterday. Earlier this week, Apple bloggers such as Mark Gurman, M.G. Siegler, Rene Richie and John Gruber discussed ways Apple might update iOS on the discussion site Branch. Consider these snippets from their public conversation: 

Apple should use WWDC to introduce and explain new functionality... and improve iOS inter-app communication. Admit that some things sucked/sucks. 

(Design chief Jony) Ive's work is apparently making many people really happy, but will also apparently make rich-texture-loving designers sad.

Ive getting his hands on the UI might alter the consumer-facing bullet points, but probably not the API's that were planned.

Ive is pushing a more “flat design” that is starker and simpler, according to developers who have spoken to Apple employees but didn’t have further details. Overall, they expect any changes to be pretty conservative.

There is clearly an opportunity for Apple to maintain its closed platform while still supporting greater inter-app communications, more robust developer access to the lock-screen, multi-modal personal communications, and the effective integration of data and contacts across apps, just like Home.

While iPhone hardware has clearly evolved, a 2008 iPhone user would feel immediately at home with iOS in 2013. There is good in such stability - and it is a testament to how much Apple got right, and how far ahead of the competition it was upon launch. However, as our smartphones do more and play a larger role in people's lives, Apple cannot stand still - nor be perceived as standing still.

Images screencapped from the Facebook Home live event