Facebook is fading into the background of its own apps -- and that's a good thing
Facebook isn't particularly well known for its ability to make good consumer software. The company's website is a constant work-in-progress, its mobile apps are infamously buggy, and its so-called "fast follows" have been all but ignored by the company's many users. Its mobile efforts are so popular simply because people are addicted to Facebook, not because they're particularly impressive in their own right.
That's starting to change. Facebook is taming its attempts to insert itself into every aspect of the modern computing experience and, believe it or not, the company's software is better because of it.
Consider the new version of Facebook Messenger released to a small number of Android users yesterday. It features a new interface unlike any that Facebook has released before and, besides prompting users for their login credentials on first launch, doesn't constantly remind them that they're using a Facebook app. It will also allow users to message people who don't have the app installed, either via the main Facebook app or via their phone numbers, making it a unique app that is improved by Facebook's network but not dependent on it.
Put another way: Messenger is becoming increasingly important to Facebook at the same time that Facebook is becoming decreasingly important to Messenger. Other messaging services have become popular partly because they aren't connected to Facebook; now it seems that Messenger is attempting to do the same while maintaining at least some connection to its predecessor.
Then there's the beta version of Facebook Home, the company's attempt to assert dominance over some of the most popular Android smartphones on the market. Home originally made Facebook the most important thing about users' smartphones, to the point where Facebook made it difficult to find any and launch any other applications. (Chat Heads, one of the software's standout features, literally put Facebook on top of everything else someone might wish to do with their smartphone.) With each update to the software, though, Facebook has started to make its Home more amenable to other apps and services.
One of the first updates to Home made it easier to launch apps that have nothing to do with Facebook. Then the software was updated to allow select Android users to add photos from Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other services to their lock screens. Facebook ceded control of one of the most important aspects of the smartphone experience -- and Home is better because of it.
None of this should come as a surprise. Facebook has always been at its best when it fades into the background, allowing its users to communicate with each other without having to be reminded of what tool they're using. For most of its users, Facebook isn't about the effectiveness of the company's ad platform, the company's mission to connect another billion people to the Internet, or Mark Zuckerberg's involvement with a humdrum activism group. It's about sharing images, messaging friends, and using the service as a modern version of the hometown newspaper.
These latest updates have made Facebook's mobile efforts much less self-involved than they were just a few months ago. The company no longer seems hell-bent on making sure that people never forget just how important Facebook has become to their daily lives -- and that might be just what it takes for the company's services to become even more popular. At least the company's products will be better than when they were meant only to advertise a service most of us were already using anyway.
[Image Credit: GioSaccone on Flickr]