Facebook Home's rough start puts Zuckerberg in a tough spot

Bad reviews combined with mediocre install numbers mean that Facebook's chief executive will have to answer for the company's home on Android.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
3 min read
Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook Home event
James Martin/CNET

Facebook Home is ready to entertain guests on Android, but the housewarming party hasn't been as warm as the social network would have hoped. On Wednesday, architect Mark Zuckerberg will likely be asked to address the mess during Facebook's conference call for its first-quarter earnings.

On April 12, Facebook introduced Home, a software suite for select Android devices that puts the company's social-networking features on a person's home and lock screens. Less than a tenth of a percent of the company's roughly 1 billion members have given Facebook's Home a chance. Those who've tried it have derided Home for taking over their device.

Facebook Home has been installed between 500,000 and 1 million times since release, according to numbers on the package's Google Play Store page. The HTC First, the only phone to come with Home pre-loaded, doesn't sound like much of a winner either.

"A local AT&T store we checked with told us it had not sold a single HTC First phone...as of last week," Wall Street firm Sterne Agee said Monday in a note on Facebook.

So Home isn't much of a phone-seller, despite a panoply of inventive advertisements. The software suite's unremarkable download rate is further punctuated by poor reviews. More than half of the 14,500 people who have reviewed the software suite on Google Play have given Home a 1-star rating. The average rating is just 2.2 stars.

On average, reviewers rate Facebook Home with 2.2 stars out of 5 stars. Screenshot/Jennifer Van Grove
The most frequent complaint is that Facebook Home and its Cover Feed stream of News Feed updates, which take over the home screen, limits the usefulness of the phone it's running on. Facebook's features seem particularly unpopular with people who want quick access to their Android widgets and other applications.

All of these factors lead Sterne Agee to argue that, "Home will probably be great for the avid Facebook users, but it is unlikely to have mass appeal."

The conclusion puts Facebook in the uncomfortable position of needing to explain to already leery investors how exactly it plans to clean up its home to better sell it. After all, the company plans to introduce ads in Cover Feed to profit from its mobile investment. Does Facebook expect its members to put up with ads when they can barely tolerate the ad-free experience to begin with?

You can expect Zuckerberg to be peppered with these types of questions when he addresses analysts and investors Wednesday afternoon.

How to set up and use Facebook Home (pictures)

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Home didn't play a role in the company's latest quarter, but Facebook's future is wrapped up in how well it can reach members on mobile and fight off competitors who are stealing away teen attention. Home is the company's most ambitious mobile undertaking to date, and it's one that investors won't appreciate unless Zuckerberg and company can justify the investment.

Facebook needs to prove to investors that it can predict and cater to the desires of future social-networkers. Should Home flop, it risks developing a reputation as a company that has lost touch with what's hip in digital.

Of course, there may not be cause for alarm just yet, and Zuckerberg will surely argue that its still very early. While Home was criticized for only getting 500,000 downloads in its first 10 days, Brian Blau, research director of consumer technologies at Gartner, told CNET that he wasn't surprised by the adoption numbers because of Home's limited availability. The software suite, which comes pre-loaded on the HTC First, is otherwise only available on six additional handsets, some of which have only recently hit the market.

There are worse things than hundreds of thousands of people giving Facebook unfettered access to the most intimate parts of their smartphones. I happen to find Home imaginative and engrossing, and believe that people who love Facebook will want to use Home.

But that might point to a bigger problem: Maybe there just aren't enough people who love Facebook to the point where they want it to dominate their phones.

We'll hear what Zuckerberg has to say.