Confused about Facebook Home? Ask Maggie has answers (FAQ)

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains what Facebook's new Home apps are and why you should care.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Home for Android yesterday during a press conference in Menlo Park, Calif. James Martin/CNET

Facebook wants to take control of your smartphone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And what the heck is Facebook Home anyway?

Facebook, which has been rumored for more than a year to be building a new so-called "Facebook phone," made a big announcement yesterday at its headquarters in California. The company took the wraps off Facebook Home , a set of apps that can be installed on your smartphone and integrate your whole experience with Facebook. Following the big announcement, I started getting questions from readers, friends, and other reporters about what this new software is and what it does. Most importantly, people wanted to know if they should care. To help answer these questions and to explain what Facebook Home is all about, I put together this FAQ in the Ask Maggie column to provide some basic information about the new apps.

What did Facebook announce on Thursday?

Facebook unveiled Facebook Home, which is a suite of apps that delivers an entire Facebook experience to your smartphone. As my CNET Reviews colleague Jessica Dolcourt points out in her post, Facebook Home isn't a new phone. It's not a new operating system. And it's not a new redesign of Google Android. It's just a set of apps that act as a "skin" that operates on top of the existing Android OS on your smartphone.

The apps become the "home" for your smartphone. In short, your device's home screen is turned into a "Cover Feed" that shows a slideshow-like stream of full-screen images from your Facebook friends with status updates that are layered on top of the pictures and scroll continuously. This allows you to see information from your Facebook friends, even when the phone is locked. Because the Home apps are integrated into the Android operating system other notifications will also show up on the "Cover Feed" including e-mails, missed calls, and text messages.

You'll be able to tap on those notifications to respond to messages and chats as well as "like" and comment on images and Facebook comments. Home also includes a new Facebook messaging feature called "Chat Heads" that allows you to get into conversations and chats more easily from any app on your device.

What is "Chat Heads," and how does it work?

"Chat Heads" is a new app designed by Facebook to make messaging more accessible on a mobile device . It allows people to engage in multiple conversations at once, and conversations via Facebook chat or SMS without opening a separate app.

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The "Chat Heads" are little circular icons that appear as your friends' profile pictures and pop up at the top of your screen when you get a text message or Facebook message. The icons offer message previews and you can get right into the chat with one click of the picture. Active Chat Heads will remain on your screen while you do other things on your phone, such as read an article, listen to music, play games, or access other apps.

You can close a chat by flicking the message or icon off the screen. If you receive messages from multiple people, you can pick up the whole group of messages and flick them away.

How can I get the Facebook Home apps?

Facebook Home will be available for download from the Google Play store starting April 12.

I thought Facebook was announcing a new phone. What happened to the Facebook phone?
Facebook also announced a phone that will have the Facebook Home app suite preloaded. It's called the HTC First.

How much is it and when and where can I get it?

It is $99.99 with a two-year carrier contract and is exclusively available on AT&T. It will go on sale April 12.

If I don't want to get the new HTC First phone, can I download the Facebook Home app on any smartphone?

Right now, Facebook Home is restricted to a select set of HTC and Samsung Google Android devices. The HTC phones that will initially get access to the app are the upcoming HTC One, as well as the One X, and One X+. You can also get it on several Samsung devices, including the Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2, and upcoming Galaxy S4.

Can I get Facebook Home on my iPhone?

No, the Facebook Home suite of apps is only available for Android smartphones right now. But it sounds like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would like to get an iOS version on the market, too. He told reporters at the event launching Home that he would like to see the Facebook experience integrated into every device. But he acknowledged that getting it on an iPhone would require a partnership with Apple .

Ultimately, it will be up to Apple whether it allows Facebook Home to be used on the iPhone. As Zuckerberg acknowledged, Apple's iOS operating system is closed. So there is no way for Facebook to develop an integrated software "skin" over the Apple iOS operating system without Apple giving Facebook permission and working with the company to make the integrations happen. That's not the case with Google Android. Because Android is an open-source operating system, Zuckerberg said the company was able to simply develop over the top of the Android OS.

Can I get the Facebook Home apps on my tablet?

Right now, Facebook Home is only available for smartphones. But the company said it is working on an Android tablet version.

Can I use other apps if I have Facebook Home on my phone?

Yes, you can use other apps even with Facebook Home installed. But instead of all your apps being on your home screen, you will need to go to the "app launcher." Facebook has created an app shortcut, but you need to manually put all your favorite apps in these shortcuts to have them pop up with one click.

Are there advertisements in Facebook Home? In other words, will I get different ads pushed to me like the updates are pushed to my phone?

When the Home apps first launch there will be no advertising in the integrated Facebook smartphone experience. But you are smart to ask to ask this question. Facebook is not a software or hardware company. It's a media company and it makes its money from advertising. So that has to fit into the picture in some way. CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that advertising will be part of the experience down the road. But the company spent little time discussing this.

Facebook Home
Dress your Android up in Facebook clothes. James Martin/CNET

This is definitely something that people should watch closely. And Facebook will have to be very careful not to annoy users with a flood of scrolling advertisements on their "Cover Feed" home page.

Is there any way to customize the app so that it doesn't just take over my phone?

CNET Reviews editor Jessica Dolcourt wrote in her initial review that it's possible to tweak certain settings on the app to customize it to your own tastes. But she notes that to get everything working together, you will have to download the Facebook app and Facebook Chat.

Can I uninstall it if I hate it?

Facebook Home is a suite of apps. It's not software that is deeply integrated with the operating system of the device, so you will be able to disable it if you find you don't like it.

Will I like this new app? Or will it simply be too much Facebook?

This will really depend on what kind of Facebook user you are. If Facebook is one of the top apps you use on your phone, and you are constantly checking for status updates, liking your friends' pictures, and commenting on posts, then you will probably really like the new Home apps.

My CNET News colleague Jennifer Van Grove, who covers Facebook, said Home offers just the right amount of Facebook for most avid users :

Notifications, which would appear to be the most egregious offender in the intrusive arena, aren't any more obnoxious than the Facebook notifications you get on your current smartphone, because they're based on your settings. They are nice to look at, and to those who say this is too much Facebook, I say, adjust your settings.

Cover Feed gets you close, but not too close, to your friends. It's the perfect feature for people who feel like they're missing out on friends' updates...But in eyeing Cover Feed, I was most struck by how the full-screen photo experience makes nearly every pic look better than it actually is. Really, it does. And because every Cover Feed update, be it text or otherwise, is a photo, your home screen is always a bright and inviting place to live.

But there are some folks who simply think this is too much Facebook for their taste. My colleague Roger Cheng likened Facebook Home to the annoying software "skins" that Samsung, Motorola, and HTC put on their Android phones. Roger's beef with Facebook Home is the fact that it makes it more cumbersome to get to other apps on your device.

In stressing Facebook Home's shift of focus to people, perhaps the company is missing the point about owning a smartphone. While users spend an estimated 20 percent of their smartphone time on Facebook, they're spending the other 80 percent doing a lot of other different things, whether it's checking e-mail with Gmail, reading an e-book with Kindle, or checking in on FourSquare.

My take on the debate is that if you are a big Facebook user, give it a try and see if you like it. It has to be an improvement over the poor design of the existing Facebook app on Android. The good news is that you can uninstall the app and go back to the way things used to be, if you don't like it. And if you rarely check Facebook on your computer, let alone on your phone, and you think you might vomit if you see another picture of someone's baby eating her first birthday cake, then don't download it.

For me, my biggest fears about using Facebook Home are that the constant push of content to my device will drain the already terrible battery life on my smartphone. And that the constant updates will eat up my data plan. And the last thing I worry about is that once Facebook integrates advertising into the "Cover Feed," my smartphone's home screen will be overrun with ads for new running shoes and baby strollers.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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