What Facebook Home might mean for Android developers and Google

The Facebook Home apps suite has some folks scratching their heads. Here's a brief overview of what it is and an explanation of whether it changes anything for Android developers.

Facebook announced on Thursday its new Home product offering. Though it had been widely speculated that Facebook was working on its own from the ground-up operating system, or perhaps partnering with a manufacturer to build a bespoke handset, Facebook Home is in fact just an app.

Android's stock Launcher can be replaced with another app, of which there are many alternatives in Google Play. Technically speaking, Facebook Home is simply a Launcher replacement. However, to a consumer, Facebook Home will give the feeling of a new OS, and therein lies the genius: Users will undoubtedly begin to refer to "having a Facebook phone" even though that's not literally true. The closest thing to this being true would be in reference to the HTC First, the first handset that will ship with the Facebook Home launcher pre-installed.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

Google can't be happy

Google built Android as an open source platform, thus opening it up to significant customization (and almost replacement) by handset manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC, yet its business model is still largely based on ad sales and driving users to use its search and other services. Facebook's foray into what has largely been the domain of manufacturers up to this point is a bigger problem for Google.

Facebook Home has the ability to serve its own ads, supplanting Google's ads. Facebook also has a close relationship with Microsoft and could easily integrate Bing search into Facebook Home, again providing a more convenient alternative to Google's search. And it's possible that down the road a significant number of phones will come pre-loaded with Facebook Home; the logical next step is to envision Facebook creating its own OS, perhaps an actual fork of Android.

The significance to app developers

At a glance, it is easy to say Facebook's announcement is meaningless to developers. After all, it's not a new platform, it's not a new language, it doesn't do away with the normal Google Play app distribution model, and it presents few obstacles to app adoption. That's actually quite shortsighted.

For starters, Facebook Home attempts to replace messaging apps (both IM and SMS), and it's conceivable that Facebook will attempt to push Facebook email addresses back into the limelight and integrate email communications more heavily. Further, Facebook already has a large gaming presence on its web-based platform. Now that Facebook will have an "always-on," easily accessible point of interaction on Home-enabled phones, mobile game development within Facebook may finally have a place to grow.

Facebook says the new app makes other apps easier to access and remain inside, enabling "new ways to surface your content to help people discover your app and reengage with existing users." While this seems to be basically true (especially with innovative features such as Chat Heads), the argument gets weaker when Facebook talks about the app drawer, a feature that is not unique to Facebook Home. In fact, it's arguably harder to get to one's apps with Facebook Home, because there is no quick access home screen to pin apps to, as there is in plain Android as well as most custom versions.

Overall, Facebook Home doesn't immediately change anything for developers. For those considering developing "apps" within Facebook, now is the best time to consider this channel. For classic Android app developers, the advice is the same as always: keep making compelling apps that users want to use.

Facebook Home will be available for download on Google Play to a limited number of smartphones beginning April 12, 2013.

More about Facebook Home

Note: CNET, ZDNet, and TechRepublic are CBS Interactive properties.


Joseph Parker has worked in management, supply chain metrics, and business/marketing strategy with small and large businesses for more than 10 years. His experience in development is personal, stemming from his work in mobile marketing and applicatio...

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