Facebook finds the heart of your smartphone with Facebook Home, a family of applications that bring social-networking mainstays such as the News Feed and Facebook Messenger to your mobile device in radically altered designs.
The software package, shown off at a press event last week, is moving to select Android devices April 12. The HTC First, the first handset optimized for Facebook Home, hits the market on the same day, exclusively with AT&T.
After spending a few days with a review unit of the HTC First, I believe Facebook has created a visually arresting mobile home like no other. The problem is that the social network unwillingly shares custody of your attention with Google's Android, and also draws attention to the flaws of the Facebook apps we're all used to.
For additional perspective, read CNET Senior Editor Jessica Dolcourt's official review of the HTC First and Facebook Home software.
A pretty exterior
Facebook Home reconstructs your Android home screen to put the social network first. Cover Feed, a home and lock-screen optimized version of Facebook's News Feed, takes over with a ceaseless panoply of photos, status updates, Instagram pics, and Page posts that pan in and around your screen and demand your attention -- and your "like."
More than just a fresh coat of paint or a little redecorating, Cover Feed is a striking re-imagining of News Feed that will appeal to Facebook enthusiasts, aka the same population that turns to Facebook's application as a stand in for the mobile browser.
The swipe-able stream won't convert Facebook haters or the privacy paranoid into social-network believers -- not by a long shot. If anything Cover Feed will solidify their aversions. But Cover Feed could very well recapture the imagination of people with strong family and friend connections who've lost interest in Facebook over the years.
In testing, I noticed another immediate and mostly enjoyable benefit: learning more about looser connections, as in the people I call "friends" on Facebook but don't consider besties.
Cover Feed is powered by a slightly adjusted version of the ranking algorithm behind News Feed, which means that, for the most part, the stories you see are similar. But the design makes stories stand out. I find myself keeping an ever-present eye on the always-updating Cover Feed, which means I'm seeing more updates and learning more about my Facebook friends. Occasionally, Cover Feed will be the nudge that prompts you to unfriend a very loose or forgotten connection, but you may also find a pleasant reminder of you why you friended someone to begin with.
Cover Feed is to News Feed what Chat Heads is to Messenger: a bold, new rendering of something that's become familiar over time. Chat Heads combines Facebook Messenger and SMS for a messaging experience that's both practical and playful. The functionality isn't without its flaws, nor is it Android's perfect answer to iMessage; but Chat Heads does allow for multitasking chatters to keep conversations flowing as they bounce around from app to app.
Chat Heads is an alluring and entirely new messaging environment that should appeal to younger users -- and maybe, just maybe draw teens back to Facebook, particularly if they've downloaded Facebook Home for the more immediate access to Instagram that the software suite provides.
A broken home
The social network's home on Android is a broken one, however. Often it feels as if Google and Facebook are divorced parents waging a custody battle for your attention.
In Facebook's home, Google is a topic almost always avoided, and in Google's zone, Facebook disappears from sight. You see, when Facebook commands the home screen, lock screen, and app launcher, the social network unequivocally calls for your attention. You have no time for Google, particularly Google Now, which is buried elsewhere, because you're too busy browsing the Web as seen through Facebook photos, messages, and notifications.
But when you step out of Cover Feed and into Google's domain, either via launching an app or a browser, you experience something entirely different. Facebook's fancy skin fades away. Chat Heads hang around, but the social network's notifications are nowhere to be found. Instead, you get Google's stock Android notifications, and you get default recommendations to share with Google products first.
Facebook could, in theory, correct for the notifications disconnect in future releases of Home. A company representative said it could technically offer up its version of notifications across the experience but isn't currently looking to do that.
Then there's the social network's application launcher, which is remedial. Home users cannot, for instance, sort their applications into folders at launch. Apps are, at best, a secondary thought in Facebook's world.
In this broken home, Facebook fights for your attention with flashy, mostly superficial features that speak to your inner child. Google gets you back when you're ready to get serious about the Internet. It's a jarring reality that can make for an uncomfortable experience at times.
Facebook Home, but Cover Feed in particular, presents a peculiar conundrum: in being so fresh, funky, and entirely suited solely for mobile, the social network makes its legacy product look dated.
Cover Feed seems like what Facebook's mobile News Feed would look like if it were built today, instead of something created eight years ago for desktops. Put another way, Cover Feed is Facebook's Instagram, a simplified social app that pares down social networking to images and clicks. It's genius, except that the top-level presentation doesn't address the deeper issues of Facebook's mobile application shortcomings -- it makes you more aware of them.
Here's what I mean: When you click a Facebook notification on your home screen, you'll find yourself inside Facebook's Android application, which instantly feels flat after coming over from Cover Feed. You'll also probably find that the application is slow to react to your click, which means the app may show you the now-clicked-on notification as still unread atop the blue bar. Where's the logic in that?
Surely it's an unintended side effect that Cover Feed makes Facebook's regular apps appear stuck in the past, but the effect is particularly noticeable, actually impossible to miss, as you bounce around from inconsistent Facebook environments. So perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should revisit that mantra about Facebook Home putting people ahead of apps, as he said at the launch event. In putting people first, Facebook has neglected its standard apps, which serve as the gateway for more than 680 million people each month.