Facebook hasn’t built its own phone. It hasn’t developed its own operating system or developed a new version of Android, like Amazon did for its Kindle Fire. Instead, with today’s announcement of the Home app launcher, home screen replacement, and software suite, Facebook has positioned itself between consumers and the core Android operating system and cut Google out of its own platform.
Android has been open since its inception, a fact many of the operating system’s proponents have heralded as superior to Apple and Microsoft’s “closed” mobile platforms. Google left its mobile darling open for manufacturers, developers, and, in some respects, competitors to tinker with and modify as they see fit, and Facebook has taken advantage of this to realize its own mobile ambitions.
Building on top of Android will allow Facebook to reach a significant number of its 1 billion users faster than it would if, say, it were to develop its own hardware or software. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made this point during today’s announcement, saying that even great devices would only be able to reach a small portion of Facebook’s users. Android, on the other hand, has a wide enough reach that building atop its foundation could allow Facebook to quickly expand — at Google’s expense.
But, still, what’s good for Google isn’t necessarily what’s good for Android, and vice versa. Allowing Facebook to exert such control over the operating system is another feather Android can stick another feather in its “We’re committed to open products” cap, even if it means further distance between Google and its own operating system.
Home is similar to other tools like Nova Launcher, Apex Launcher, or GO Launcher, all of which are available in Google’s Play Store. App launchers replace the look and feel of Android devices by replacing the default launcher, which often sports a manufacturer-skinned design like Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense. (With that many instances of “launcher” in one sentence, it’d be understandable for you to think we’re talkin’ rockets, but we’re not.)
Facebook has essentially built its own user interface on top of the core Android system, which, again, manufacturers have been allowed to do since Android’s introduction. Basically: Android is Google’s cake, but manufacturers are able to add as much and whatever type of frosting as they want.
But Facebook has taken the concept of re-skinning Android to serve its own purpose a step further with the Facebook Home Program, which will allow various manufacturers and carriers to add the software to Android phones before users have even purchased the device. HTC and AT&T are the first to ship a device, the HTC First, as part of the program; Samsung, Orange, Sony, and other carriers have also signed on, according to a slide shown at today’s event.
That isn’t the same as relying on users to download and install Home on their own, though Facebook is doing that as well. This is a drive to redefine how people interact with Android smartphones, an organized attempt to make Facebook the most important part of the Android experience. Devices with Home pre-installed are, for all intents and purposes, “Facebook phones.”
And, by allowing anyone with a hankerin’ and a bit of know-how to change Android in its continuous pursuit of “openness,” Google has played an even larger role in that shift than Facebook itself.
Google could probably find some way of preventing Facebook from dominating Android devices (it’s worth noting that Google’s Nexus 4 isn’t among Home’s supported devices at launch) but Facebook doesn’t seem to be too worried about that possibility.
“We think that Google takes their commitment to openness in the ecosystem really seriously,” Zuckerberg said in response to a reporter’s question at today’s event.
In other words: Facebook has taken advantage of Google’s “open” parade and is convinced that it won’t suddenly change its tune. Sure, Google built Android, and yeah, Facebook is using a competitor’s platform to build a major new product, but that doesn’t matter, right? Open’s open, and Facebook seems to think that Android will never be shut.