The Facebook Phone is finally here. And, as expected, it’s not really a phone at all. Home, as the new product is called, is a free, downloadable skin that gives existing Android phones a total Facebook makeover, transforming both lock and home screens into immersive, edge-to-edge slideshows of photos and status updates. (It will also come pre-loaded on the HTC First, which will be $99 from AT&T.) It is, of course, a huge power play by Facebook. But it’s also a genuinely exciting new vision for mobile design. Here are three places where it’s charting new territory.
Home isn’t about apps. It’s about people. That was the refrain for the day, and it’s something that’s very much evident in its design. The most immediate transformation comes in the form of a new lock and home screen that continually rotate through Facebook updates, presenting them as flashy, full-screen slides. Weather forecast? Stock quotes? Those old stand-bys are nowhere to be found, getting the boot in favor of one thing: your friends.
The other big feature is a new messaging system called Chat Heads, which keeps conversations on top of your screen, no matter what app you’re using, in the form of small circular avatars. It’s a new way of thinking about messaging—not as an app but as a layer on top of everything you do.
Connecting, be it passively through the new lock screen or actively through the new messaging system, is what Home is about. Connecting with your friends—and with Facebook. The new experience reduces the friction involved in using Facebook to a fantastic degree. What’s easier than tapping an app icon to open Facebook? Not having to tap anything at all. With Home, you no longer have to make the decision to use Facebook. You’re already using it.
But it might not feel like you’re using it, and that’s key. One noteworthy thing about Home is the name. When Zuckerberg talked about it today, he didn’t call it Facebook Home. It was just "Home." And that signals something that’s evident throughout the design: Facebook, as a platform, taking a backseat to the content it carries. As another presenter today boasted, there’s "no chrome, no logo." The home screen doesn’t show your Facebook feed, as some predicted. That’s too Facebook-y. It blows status updates up and shows them one at a time. It looks nothing like any other version of Facebook we’ve ever seen. The words "Facebook" are nowhere in sight.
And that’s smart. Facebook’s certainly facing some challenges—for older users, it’s becoming a guilty pleasure; for teens, it’s quickly becoming passé—and that’s got to be worrisome to the company. Facebook isn’t cool. Tumblr’s cool. Snapchat’s cool. But with Home, instead of trying to rebrand itself, Facebook wisely let the platform step into the background and pushed the content to center stage. It doesn’t need to be loved; just to be used. And even if people don’t want to use Facebook, they’ll always be game for flipping through pictures of their friends.
But from a user experience standpoint, perhaps the most significant thing about Home is simply the way it thinks beyond the "app" in a broader sense. It’s something Zuckerberg harped on continually: moving beyond apps. And that’s a big departure.
With Home, you can still get to all your old apps through a built-in launcher, sure, but they’re put in a little drawer like so many toys. Apps made smartphones like Swiss army knives. The whole idea of Home is to remake the smartphone user experience around its most important function: connecting us with other people. As Zuckerberg said, Home turns your smartphone into a "a great, simple social device."
The idea of mobile apps as discrete, cordoned-off experiences is something Apple entrenched with the iPhone very early on. Build whatever you want on your own rectangular plots, Apple told developers, but this phone is ours, and we’re the ones responsible for how it looks, feels, and functions.
Google never put those restrictions on Android, and now Facebook is moving in to exploit that in a big way. The result is something entirely different from the apps we’ve come to know—something that reaches far wider and is integrated far deeper. We don’t even really have a word for it. It’s not an OS. It’s not an app. For most users, it will just become what their phone is. And while that is in many ways a scary prospect, it does offer some interesting possibilities.
When you move beyond the app, you can do things apps can’t do. Home shows us messaging and communicating in ways we haven’t seen before—and, frankly, in ways that are much more relevant. Mobile messaging is no longer an asynchronous thing, as it was back in the days of 160-character texting. It’s more like chat, and Chat Heads, which doesn’t get knocked to the background when you’re using another app, reflects that reality. And it works in a way a simple text message app never could.
During the event, Zuckerberg mentioned Android’s wide reach and how, for many people around the world, the smartphone represented their first real computing experience. And in a sense, Home is a bid to transform that experience—to move it away from the app paradigm that Google and Apple have put forward in recent years to something based on connecting and communicating, with Facebook conveniently facilitating it all.
But from one perspective, today’s event not only offered a peek beyond apps, but beyond smartphones too. It showed how the app model might not make sense on devices like Google Glass, where we won’t have the luxury of screens to tap at.
To succeed, that next generation of devices will have to be far more fluid and flexible, in terms of bringing in data and content from a variety of sources and giving us simple tools for digesting and sharing it. That may very well require a more holistic approach to design—a single driving vision that assimilates functions and features into one cohesive experience. Facebook Home is a glimpse of what that next step might look like.