It seems crazy that Facebook figured it out first. They’re just a social network. How could they redefine the smartphone operating system?
With Home, Facebook is fundamentally challenging the way mobile apps work. It’s not just an Android launcher or a pretty alternative to the lock screen. It’s the first real challenge to the unitary app model.
The way we’ve used apps for the last five years—driven almost entirely by Apple’s lucrative, monotasking App Store model—is fundamentally flawed. While it’s certainly an excellent way to sell software, it’s a lousy way to experience the changing digital landscape: Texts. Scores. Pictures. Tweets. Notifications come every second from a variety of sources. And to keep up, we have to hop constantly from one app to another, or awkwardly thumb through a list of notifications.
If you want to know what the future of mobile looks like, look no further than Chat Heads, the poker-chip-like avatars that drive conversations on Home. Because no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, these heads can peek into the frame, quietly and coolly hanging out until you’re ready for them. And that’s a big change.
“People think of multitasking now as being able to switch between apps easily,” Home designer Joey Flynn tells Co.Design. “But with Chat Heads, it does feel like one of the first times you can do multiple things at once.”
“Say you’re using Maps or Instagram, and a friend messages you,” his partner Francis Luu adds. “With the standard app model, you have to make a choice. Do I stay in Instagram, browsing photos, ignoring my friend’s message, or do I completely switch contexts to say ‘See you soon!’”
“We were always finding this tension between wanting to talk to people and using an app,” Flynn continues.
It’s true. Think about the last time you were texting while trying to look up an address. Or better still, think about the last time you were texted by two or three people at once. Your phone becomes a rapid fire piece of sensory overload, but the siloed UI almost numbs your fingers. Where do you go next? Chat Heads doesn’t make you choose.
While I was testing Home on Facebook’s HTC First, I goded a few friends to inundate me with messages. Their poker chips formed a neat stack over my Chrome window. I can even flick this stack around my browser, and with a smooth combination of physics and logic, it always finds its way to a discreet spot on my screen.
Chat Heads simply layers messaging on top of your window. Doesn’t iMessage already do that? Sort of. Chat Heads is fundamentally different from what we get in a notification center because, for one, Facebook designed the aesthetic to contrast with most apps. Whereas soft-edged rectangles rule UI, each Chat Head is a round avatar.
“There was something really nice about the circle. For one, it framed profile pictures really well. It also felt tactile, like this little chip you could move around and toss off the screen if you wanted to,” Joey says. “And it differentiated itself from the app lying below it. In Instagram, you have these bars and rectangles. If you have circle icons, it helps them pop more.”
These Chat Heads are also people, rather than content. So as my friends bug me, I’m not greeted with their request first; I’m greeted with their face. As the messages pile up, it’s a parallel to standing in a quiet room with several friends who’d like to talk, as opposed to trying to hold four conversations at once in a crowded bar. This one simple fix relieves much of the tension inherent to most multitasking situations we experience on our phones. By tapping on my pile of friends, the chips unfurl into a whole menu of conversations. Tap on any of them again, and they slink back together.
But aside from Chat Heads, Home is a special app because you never even have to launch it. It’s omnipresent, staking a claim to a piece of smartphone real estate that’s surprisingly underutilized by today’s apps—the lock screen.
“People look at the lock screen up to 100 times a day,” Francis explains. “if you’re seeing a clock, that’s a little useful, but if you’re seeing the same wallpaper over and over again, it does seem very stale. We wanted to take advantage of the situation, if you will.”
“Up until now, it’s been kind of understood as a way to protect against accidental touches,” Joey adds.
The team explained to me a very simple point of logic: Data has shown that many people pick up their phones solely to use Facebook. If that’s the case, why isn’t Facebook waiting for them? Why add this gateway to launching an app?
“There’s going to be friction with the standard app model to look at something,” Francis says. “With Facebook Home, we tried to break down those barriers and make it easier to jump.”
Now maybe you’re not into Facebook. Maybe you think all the teens are just Snapchatting anyway. Maybe you want more privacy. Regardless, you can still learn something from what Facebook has done here.
In fact, if you’re Apple, Google, an OEM skinning Android, or even an Android app developer, you now have to ask yourself: Is there any way I can have the information that the user wants waiting for them, before they ask for it? And is there any way I can offer multiple streams of information—even multiple apps of information—to a user at the same time?
Because even if you think the app model still works today, it won’t scale to something like augmented reality tomorrow. Even pre-augmented reality systems like Glass are finding workarounds to the multitasking experience as we know it. Or as Frog’s Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston recently told me:
The unitary model makes sense to use because that’s how humans are: one body, one soul, one mind. But computing doesn’t need to be like that. You can have 1,000 bodies and one soul. We have to begin to exercise that possibility.
To reach that "1,000 bodies and one soul" model, the mobile developers of the future will need to make apps more like Home—apps that dig deeper into the core OS experience to make an enticing dish out of the never-ending buffet of content we face every day. And paradoxically, they will need to do it as subtly and uniformly as possible. It won’t be easy. But if they succeed in creating a new way to multitask on our phones, it’ll be hard to remember how we ever survived without it.
Facebook Home is out now for Android.