Although Facebook has a powerful presence on personal computers, the
cellphone has been its Achilles' heel. With its users flocking to mobile
phones by the millions - and many of its newest users never accessing
the services on computers at all - the company has struggled to catch up
On Thursday, Facebook unveiled its latest, most ambitious
effort to crack the challenge: a package of mobile software called
Facebook Home that is designed to draw more users and nudge them to be
more active on the social network.
The new suite of applications
effectively turns the Facebook news feed into the screen saver of a
smartphone, updating it constantly and seamlessly with Facebook posts
In so doing, Facebook has cleverly, perhaps also
dangerously, exploited technology owned by one of its leading rivals,
Google. Facebook Home works on Google's Android operating system, which
has become the most popular underlying software for smartphones in the
The Facebook News Feed appears as soon as the phone is
turned on. Pictures take up most of the real estate, with each news feed
entry scrolling by like a slide show. Messages and notifications pop up
on the home page. To "like" something requires no more than two taps.
Facebook apps are within easy reach, making the phone essentially
synonymous with the Facebook ecosystem.
"Today, our phones are
designed around apps, not people," said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's
chief executive, said at a news conference here at the company's
headquarters. "We want to flip that around."
Facebook Home will be
available for download from Google's app store, Play, on April 12 for
four popular, moderately priced phones that use Android and are made by
HTC and Samsung. A fifth one, a new model called the HTC First, will be
sold by AT&T for $100 with the software loaded.
For the time
being, Facebook will not show ads on the phone's home screen, which
Facebook is calling Cover Feed. Since advertising revenue is crucial to
the company's finances, however, it will almost certainly display ads
there in the future.
Facebook Home is also clearly designed to get
Facebook users to return to their news feeds even more frequently than
they do now. Every time they glance at their phone at the supermarket
checkout line or on the bus to work, they will, in essence, be looking
at their Facebook page.
"It's going to convert idle moments to
Facebook moments," said Chris Silva, a mobile industry analyst with the
Altimeter Group. "I'm 'liking' things, I'm messaging people, and when
ads roll out, I'm interacting with them and letting Facebook monetize me
as a user."
Krishna Subramanian, the chief marketing officer at
Velti, a San Francisco-based company that buys targeted advertisements
online on behalf of brands, pointed out that even without showing ads on
the mobile cover feed, Facebook Home could prove to be a lucrative
By nudging its users to do more on the social network, he
said, the company will inevitably get "an explosion of mobile data that
can be tied back into desktop advertising" to Facebook users.
majority of Facebook's 1 billion-plus users log in on their cellphones.
Most Americans now have an Internet-enabled phone, and smartphone
penetration is growing especially fast in emerging market countries,
where Facebook has substantial blocs of its users.
press event, Zuckerberg repeatedly signaled that he wanted the new
product to enable a mass, global audience to connect to Facebook,
especially those have yet to get on the Internet. "We want to build
something that's accessible to everyone," he said.
Although HTC is
rolling out the first new phone with Facebook Home installed, and
AT&T has agreed to sell it, other phone-makers and carriers may be
reluctant to load the software.
Jan Dawson, a telecom analyst at
Ovum, said Apple's iPhone and many Android smartphones already do a good
job of integrating the Facebook application into their phones. And he
said phone carriers were unlikely to give a Facebook phone made by HTC
much support because the Taiwanese phone-maker's past attempt at a
Facebook phone - the ChaCha, which had a physical button for posting
photos on Facebook - sold poorly.
"HTC may be desperate enough to
do this, but carriers aren't likely to promote it heavily," Dawson said.
"As a gimmick, it may bring customers into stores, but they'll mostly
end up buying something else."
Whether consumers will embrace a
phone that emphasizes Facebook over everything else also remains to be
seen. Some are likely to have concerns about how much personal
information they are being asked to share with Facebook. Additionally,
checking Facebook dozens of times every day could result in hefty data
use charges, unless users are connected to a Wi-Fi network or negotiate
special packages with carriers.
Facebook and AT&T executives
said they had taken that into account. Users will be notified when they
are about to reach their data limits. The software can also be set to
download data-heavy content like video only when the user is connected
to a Wi-Fi network, and then save it in its memory.
The software's most powerful feature is to turn the cellphone into a starkly personal gadget.
employees, current and past, were invited to the product announcement, a
sign of how crucial it has been for Facebook to crack the mobile
puzzle. Silicon Valley has whispered for months about the prospects of a
Facebook phone. Zuckerberg has consistently denied building one.
announcement signaled that Facebook had stopped short of even building
an operating system. Instead, it had simply altered its rival Google's
The Android platform, Zuckerberg said, was built to be
open to new integrations. Asked at the news conference whether he
feared that Google executives would change their mind about Facebook
using it to advance its mobile aims, Zuckerberg turned somewhat testy.
"Anything can change in the future," he said. "We think Google takes its commitment to openness very seriously."
for its part, was notably genteel. "This latest collaboration
demonstrates the openness and flexibility that has made Android so
popular," the company said in an emailed statement. "And it's a win for
users who want a customized Facebook experience from Google Play - the
heart of the Android ecosystem - along with their favorite Google
services like Gmail, Search and Google Maps."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service