Facebook: Go forth, Chat Heads, and tell everyone that we’ve improved at mobile

By Richard Nieva , written on April 16, 2013

From The News Desk

When Facebook announced Home earlier this month, I wrote that the most intriguing thing about the new software bundle was the Chat Heads feature, which lets a user message with Facebook and other contacts from anywhere in the interface, despite what app they might be using at the time.

Today, Facebook announced that it would bring the feature to its iOS app for private messaging. Within the last few days, Facebook has made the feature available to the majority of the smartphone wielding population. On Friday, when the company began to roll out Home for Android devices, Facebook also announced that Chat Heads would be available on the Facebook Messenger app for Android, without having to go all in on Home.

It’s early, but it looks like Facebook has finally got something – even if it’s small – that it can hang its proverbial mobile hat on (how fitting that it’s a Chat Head). The Verge has an in-depth feature on the product's development, where the company says its future is private messaging. Which explains why Facebook wants Chat Heads far and wide. But Chat Heads coming to the boring old iOS app also sheds light on the state of mobile design at the company.

But beyond its effect on the company's bet on private messaging, making Chat Heads widely available has some interesting consequences. On the one hand, Facebook is hedging its bets on Home. Some Android users have already professed that the only reason they would have tried Home was to check out Chat Heads, and now they have no need to do so. On the other hand, Chat Heads can act as an ambassador to this new leaf of Facebook mobile engineering, serving simply to raise the opinion of the company’s mobile sensibility, and garnishing good will among iOS users.

The announcement is a bit anticlimactic, because Chat Heads on iOS is far inferior than the version on Android. The beauty of the Android hack, as I argued earlier, was that Chat Heads applied to both Facebook friends and your other contacts via SMS. That makes it a useful messaging product all around, and not just a boon to a user’s Facebook experience. Because of Apple’s strict ecosystem restrictions, allowing Chat Heads to work outside the app, alongside the phone’s core features, is impossible.

But even with its limited functionality, bringing Chat Heads to iOS is a win for Facebook's mobile devs. It's the first major overhaul of en element of the main app's design in a long time. When the team redid Facebook's native mobile apps, it only focused on retooling the backend. Cory Ondrejka, head of mobile engineering, told Fortune that redesigning the apps' look would be a distraction. So actually shipping a cosmetic change is a sign that the company is happy with the foundation.

The main app still has a ways to go if it is to be a truly robust mobile experience. But Chat Heads is a good start.