Facebook Home: mobile-first really means messaging-first

By Richard Nieva , written on April 4, 2013

From The News Desk

It’s been becoming a somewhat monthly tradition to trek down to 1 Hacker Way. First, for humdrum announcements like Graph Search, then the new News Feed. But the scene today was very different. No drab gray conference room. Facebook cleaned up for this one, dimmed the lights, and after years of speculation over a Facebook phone, it finally showed its hand: Facebook Home for Android.

First, kudos are due to Facebook for finally doing something of consequence in mobile. I’ve been hard on Facebook for limping into the mobile space, and today we finally got a real and ballsy announcement. Whether this is a jump in the right direction is another story. It’s not quite an OS, not quite an app. It’s software for Android that puts Facebook friends and stories front and center.

But not only did the company reveal a phone-ish type thing, it also revealed something about its strategy: It thinks the essence of “mobile first” – that ephemeral tag that the company has been spouting but hasn’t really shown us – is to be good at messaging.

Before we go further, I’ll try to explain what this thing called Home is. It's software that uses Facebook elements as a home screen for Android phones. Facebook stories are pushed directly to the phone in the form of friends’ cover photos. Apps are secondary to people in the user interface. Before even getting to your app icons, you must open a folder.

That’s all well and good, but the most interesting part of the actual user experience is the new messaging system Facebook introduced. It’s called Chat Heads (Not to be confused with Fatheads). When you chat with someone, a small, moveable thumbnail of his profile picture appears on the screen. Tap the icon to open up the conversation, and tap or swipe to collapse it. When you are in another app, you can see the icon on top of it, so you don’t have to interrupt what you are doing to go into a messaging app to respond, like on iOS.

This is a clever move for a company like Facebook. Not only does it project to shareholders, Hey look, we’re *trying* to innovate! Ain’t no SnapChat here! But it also helps trumpet the core product. That’s because of one statement uttered by Facebook product designer Joey Flynn: “Text messages and Facebook messages will both have the Chat Head format.”

This puts your Facebook friends on the same level as your traditional, important contacts. To a user, it all looks the same on the front end, at least at first glance. Somehow cognitively, it almost tricks your brain into elevating your Facebook friends to the level of the contacts in your phone. Of course, there will be some overlap. But in this scenario, someone like your sister is in the same pool of contacts as your old college roommate’s friend you met one time and added on Facebook.

It all make sense now. These past few weeks, Facebook has been hounding me to download its Messenger app (I still have not). Indeed, you need the app for Facebook Home to function.

Mobile companies focusing on messaging is something we've seen before. When BlackBerry was king, it cut its teeth on BBM. And Apple did the same thing when it lumped in SMS with its proprietary message system.

The question now is whether Android users will stick with Facebook Home, or download it out of curiosity, and then ditch it. The user interface is impressive. It’s actually so nice that it draws attention to how awful Facebook’s main mobile app is. With one touch, you can see a story that shows up on your home screen in more detail with the mobile app, the demo showed. Then the boring old mobile app showed up. It’s almost like being at a movie and then walking outside. And you realize that, while this is a big step in the right direction, Facebook still has a lot of work to do in becoming truly “mobile first.” A social strength like messaging is a smart place to start.