Now that Facebook has launched Home — “a new way to turn your Android phone into a great, living, social phone” — let’s take a look a year or so into the future. Will Facebook damage Apple and Google’s share of the smartphone market? Unlikely. Will HTC see a bump in sales? Probably more than many expect, but it will still be a niche product. Will Facebook Home matter at all? Yes, but for reasons that Facebook isn’t talking about right now.
What will matter about Home isn’t that there is now something we can call a Facebook phone, or that Facebook has hacked its way into a front-end wrapper for what is still an Android phone. Google would be shrewd to let Facebook do what it wants with Android, so that it can offer a rival product built around Google Now and branded as, say, a Nexus phone. Whatever proves successful with Facebook Home, count on Google, Apple, and others to copy it quickly.
No, what is most significant about what Facebook announced yesterday is that this is not the company that went public nearly a year ago with no compelling sense how to make money on mobile devices. This is now a company that will do whatever it takes, however long it takes, to remain relevant in mobile. This is Facebook’s return as a strong contender in the race to reshape how we use the Web.
In a year or two, Facebook Home will have evolved into something very different from what was announced yesterday. It may not be called Home, it may even have evolved into Facebook’s own mobile operating system. But Facebook clearly recognizes what is apparent to any company selling smartphones and to many users as well: The mobile phone of 2013 has hit a period of stagnation in terms of innovation. And it’s just a matter of time before someone boldly rethinks how we use the mobile Web.
Will Facebook be the one to reinvent the mobile device? It has the engineering talent to get the job done. And it’s trying. Pitching Home as a phone that’s built around people rather than apps is PR spin, but it’s also a vision worth pursuing. The smartphone has the potential to make connecting with others much more seamless and intuitive than it is today, but it means making the apps themselves more invisible. Home as it was introduced yesterday is only a small step toward that vision, but it’s a step that no one else has taken yet.
After a year spent on the ropes in the aftermath of its IPO, Facebook is emerging as a company that is holding onto its long-term vision. You may or may not like that vision, but the tech companies that have been the most successful over the years are ones that held dearly to them even in bad times. Steve Jobs’ early vision for personal computing found fruition in the iPad. Google’s broad mandate to organize information has helped it remain both innovative and competitive.
I’ve always been suspicious of Facebook’s vision myself, because I never know which Facebook I’m dealing with. There are really two Facebooks: The one Mark Zuckerberg wrote about as having a mission “to make the world more open and connected.” And the one that has cynically exploited that mission by aggressively mining user data to sell ever more targeted ads. Zuckerberg showed us the first Facebook yesterday. How the company uses the data it collects from Home phones is an unsettling question that will be answered later.
So I won’t be among those who are looking forward to a phone designed around Facebook. But I will be watching with interest to see how much ability the company still has to shake things up in the tech world. The Facebook Home unveiled yesterday won’t be tipping over any apple carts. But it is a reminder that it would be foolish to count Facebook out of the next era of the mobile Web.
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user vinzcha.)