Facebook unveiled a software suite on Thursday that stakes out a “home” on Android smartphones as it steps up its challenge to Apple and Google in the booming mobile market.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the software weaves the social network into the homescreen of HTC (宏達電) and Samsung phones powered by the latest versions of Android to focus experiences on “people and not apps.”
“We’re not building a phone and we’re not building an operating system, but we are building something that’s a lot deeper than an app,” Zuckerberg told a gathering at the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.
Facebook called Home “a new way to turn your Android phone into a great, living, social phone.”
The software, which allows users to see Facebook’s “Cover Feed” when they turn on their phones, will be available for download from Google’s online Play shop in the US starting on Friday next week.
A version should be available in Europe in the coming months, according to Facebook, which said it was in the process of tailoring Home for tablet computers.
Home will be available through HTC, which will launch its Facebook homescreen smartphone called HTC First, to be released on Friday next week through US carrier AT&T at a price of US$100.
“It is the only phone that has Facebook Home preloaded and optimized,” HTC chief Peter Chou (周永明) said while joining Zuckerberg at the event.
“Mobile is fundamentally social; it is all about connecting with other people... This is a great opportunity to bring mobile and social together even closer,” he said.
Home became HTC’s latest attempt to jump into the fast-growing social networking market. In February 2011, the company unveiled the HTC ChaCha and HTC Salsa phones, both of which have an exclusive button to connect with Facebook. However, the two devices received a lukewarm response from the public when they went on sale.
On Thursday, Zuckerberg demonstrated how a user would start with Facebook on the homescreen and be able to navigate and switch back and forth between apps, as well as simultaneously send and receive messages through “chat heads” overlaid on the screen.
“I think this is a really big deal for Facebook,” Peter Corbett of the research firm iStrategyLabs said.
“Now that they have what will essentially be a native branch of the Android operating system that they control and build upon, this is the future of Facebook,” he said.
Corbett added that “Apple should be worried to a certain extent” because Facebook will “put this in front of millions and millions of the world’s youth who may decide ‘I want a Facebook phone instead of an iPhone.’”
Analyst Trip Chowdhry said the new software is a potentially “groundbreaking experience” that could help Facebook compete with Google in the mobile advertising market.
“Since Facebook is not imitating, they will carve a leadership position,” he said, adding: “Google missed a huge opportunity in social mobile phones.”
Facebook said no ads will be woven into social network feeds that appear automatically as homescreen or lock-screen scenes, but that they may in the future.
Facebook customized Home for Android-powered smartphones because the operating system made available free by Google can be openly tweaked by hardware makers as opposed to the tight grip Apple keeps on iPhone innards.
Zuckerberg was careful not to throw down overt challenges to Apple or Google.
“We have a great relationship with Apple,” Zuckerberg said.
“Google is aware of what we are doing; we have talked to them... We are committed to doing our best on every platform,” he said.
Zuckerberg reasoned that since people spend significant chunks of their smartphone time at Facebook, improving the experience on Android handsets was a good thing for Google’s mobile operating system.
“In a way, this can start to bring some of those high quality experiences you see on iPhones to Android, and that could be really good for Android,” Zuckerberg said.
Some analysts questioned the broad appeal of a smartphone that veils e-mail, Google search and other commonly used services behind a Facebook curtain.
“Home provides a more intimate connection to Facebook; the issue for some is what other stuff you want to see on the screen that it is going to conceal,” Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle said.
“Clearly, Google is going to have an issue with Facebook monopolizing an Android phone,” he continued. “I think there is going to be a little drama.”
Home also raised questions about the privacy of posts shared by friends when messages or images pop up like slide shows for anyone nearby to see on smartphone homescreens.
Additional reporting by staff writer