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Why there's still hope for Facebook Home (seriously)

The social networking titan hopes a more scaled-down approach, in which Home comes in bits and pieces, will win over more fans than its botched initial attempt.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg insists that people still want Facebook Home. After this next shift in strategy, he may not sound so delusional.

Facebook Home, in case you need a refresher, was the social-networking titan's big push to take over the smartphone and firmly establish its presence in the mobile world. It failed. Badly. The collection of apps that made up Home barely resonated with consumers, and the only phone to come loaded with the software, the HTC First (colloquially known as the "Facebook Phone"), was a complete flop.

After all that, it would be easy to conclude that Home is a complete failure. Indeed, Zuckerberg, during a public appearance at TechCrunch Disrupt on Wednesday, candidly confessed that he was disappointed by the reception Home has received. But disappointment and defeat are two different things, and Zuckerberg and Co. have gone back to the drawing board to diagram a new, more scaled-back plan. Facebook's new proposition for consumers: Grab the parts of Home you want, forget the rest.

"I still fully believe that this is going to be something that a lot of people want over time," Zuckerberg said. "Getting content delivered to your home screen and being ambiently aware of what's going on is, I think, a very valuable thing."

Facebook appears to be humbled by its early failures. The company has given up on being the be-all, end-all center of your smartphone and will settle for being a handy conduit between you and the people you care about, Facebook friends or otherwise. As Facebook Home is made up of several different components -- a home and lock screen called Cover Feed that acts as an alternative panning interface for News Feed, a cutesy messaging experience known as Chat Heads, and an application launcher -- the company will look to push the pieces individually.

HTC First
Facebook Cover Feed Josh Miller/CNET

Look for Facebook to promote the Cover Feed lock screen as its own feature, just like other custom Android lock screens. The company will open its lock screen to hand-selected partners, which means that instead of only showing panning Facebook photos, you'll get Instagram pictures, and content from other yet-to-be-named apps. Chat Heads, meanwhile, is already widely used as a messaging component of the Facebook app that 819 million people turn to each month.

You've seen this strategy at work in recent product releases that have separated the parts from the whole so that people can use Chat Heads or Cover Feed independent of the rest of Home, and you've heard it directly from Zuckerberg, who talked openly about adding more social content from Instagram and third-party applications to the lock screen.

Zuckerberg might be right about the appeal of an ambiently aware screen. For starters, he was not the first to come up with the idea. Windows Phone live tiles push social updates to the home screen in a design that many people find appealing. As a standalone lock screen, a more inclusive Cover Feed would provide a passive look at what friends, celebrities, and others are sharing in a captivating fashion, but not interfere with your ability to get to your apps, which is Home's biggest flaw.

On Android, Facebook doesn't need carriers or handset manufacturers to make the software available on more phones, because users can update or download the apps themselves. For now, Facebook Home can only run on select Samsung and HTC phones, but the company is optimizing the software to run on more devices, and plans to continue improving its mobile offerings. Zuckerberg said Wednesday that Facebook does intend to nudge people to turn on the lock screen through the main app when the company is happy with the quality.

Facebook Chat Heads Jason Cipriani/CNET

Those pieces are the key to correcting for an image badly defaced by a too-big-for-its-britches launch strategy. When it debuted in April, Home was quickly derided as being too cumbersome for people who wanted to access things beyond Facebook.

While it was available on a few high-profile phones such the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, much of the focus -- and criticism -- was reserved for the HTC First. Home was introduced with much fanfare and received decent support from AT&T and TV commercials from Facebook, but it quickly found its way to the clearance rack, and saw an abrupt halt in the UK.

htc first facebook home

The HTC First will undoubtedly be the last "Facebook Phone" to see the light of day, at least for the foreseeable future. And Facebook's new plan won't, as Zuckerberg iterated, turn the ill-received mobile software into a revamped success overnight. Facebook first has to find a way to convince Android owners to take a second look at Home. That will be less of an obstacle when the software is available on more smartphones, and when the company feels ready to prompt its mobile users to switch on the features through the standard Facebook app.

Taking a less egocentric view of the social landscape and encouraging people to add the bits and pieces they like means getting Home on your terms, not Facebook's. And in putting your interests before its own, Facebook may finally deliver the people-centric smartphone experience it has promised all along.