Facebook Home: Bold experiment or extreme bloatware?

commentary The Facebook phone isn't a phone at all, but a comprehensive skin that runs on top of the OS. Android purists will not be pleased.

Facebook Home
Android purists may not welcome Facebook Home. James Martin/CNET

Hard-core Facebook devotees may find Home to be the smartphone experience they've been looking for.

For everyone else, Facebook's new Android skin may be little better than bloatware (although, to be fair, it's not forced on people). In particular, Android purists will want to stay clear.

Facebook took a major step today toward staking its claim in the mobile field with Home , which is a family of apps wrapped up in a custom user interface. It's an ambitious step, and likely a smart one, given that the alternative would have been the boneheaded move of building its own device or operating system.

The intent of Facebook Home is clear: Keep its users on services such as its Messenger app or its stream of updates delivered via the CoverFeed.

"If we're all spending so much time on our phones, how do we make it easier?" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked today at the launch event. "Our phones are designed around apps, and not people. We want to flip it."

Which is great, if your only social network is Facebook and all you care about is what other people are eating or where they're celebrating their birthdays. While placing people first is a respectable goal, it's less handy if the user also likes to tweet on a regular basis, or has as many connections on Google+ as Facebook. For many people, the focus on people (as viewed through the narrow spectrum of Facebook) may not be enough.

That Facebook wants to lock you into its own smartphone experience isn't particularly a bad thing. Indeed, that's a core part of Google's strategy with Android. But Android works well because there are so many useful services that we regularly use, including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Search. Google Now is quickly emerging as an innovative tool that delivers what you need before you realize you need it.

For now, Facebook offers a home screen that can allow you to quickly slide into its Messenger service, an app launcher, and the last app you used. The biggest selling point is the quick and easy way in which you can get photo and status updates from your friends. But that's a fairly limited capability relative to stock Android, which serves up your must useful apps at the home screen.

The overbearing feel of the Facebook user interface brings to mind the older skins that the handset manufacturers would place on top of Android in an effort to make them stand out. Remember Motorola Mobility's Motoblur? That's dead. Samsung Electronics' heavy-handed approach was called TouchWiz, which it no longer refers to anymore. Those skins often came with unnecessary apps and custom stylish touches that, while weren't technically considered bloatware, still slowed down the phone and made it tougher to upgrade to the latest version of Android.

As such, most of the handset vendors have toned down such customization efforts, with the exception of HTC, which doubled down on the dramatically different Sense user interface and Flipboard-like Blinkfeed home screen.

So it's no surprise then that HTC was Facebook's big handset partner, building the HTC First as the debut device with Facebook Home preloaded onto the phone. It will be offered exclusively through AT&T for $99.99 and a two-year contract.

Fortunately, Facebook is taking a smart approach by making users proactively download the new user interface through Google Play rather than shoehorning it into phones (beyond the HTC First) or its Facebook app. So at least it's not the kind of bloatware that's preloaded on phones by carriers and handset vendors and is near-impossible to remove. Only select HTC and Samsung phones will be able to access it initially starting April 12. The company also said it plans to update Home on a monthly basis, so perhaps its capabilities will expand with time.

But 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.

Because as Facebook would have you forget, sometimes it's not about the people -- it's about what you can do with your phone.

 

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