Maybe you were hoping for something radically new and different from a Facebook phone. If so, Zuck just broke your heart. But so what. Facebook never does anything new. New doesn’t matter in the blue. What matters is this: What Mark Zuckerberg showed off today runs software called Facebook Home that makes it easier for people to spend more time with Facebook. And that’s all he really needed to pull off.
In fact, the long rumored Facebook phone turned out not to be a phone at all. Or even a new OS or a fork of the Android operating system like Amazon’s Kindle Fire. It’s something more than an application, and slightly less than an operating system. As Wired.com editor Mark McClusky described it, Facebook Home is an “apperating system.” The genius of the Facebook phone is that the company made a phone without making a phone at all. It’s not overly ambitious. It’s not a big bet. And that’s why it may have such a huge payoff.
Over the past few days, lots of pundits have been asking who this is for. Facebook gave us an answer today: It’s for people who don’t care about a rich, full experience on the Internet, yet love Facebook. People who want to run apps, but are overwhelmed by them. People who want to connect with friends and family, but want it to be super easy to do so. For many people, Facebook is the Internet, just as AOL was before it. And just as Facebook is the best way for them to experience the Internet in a browser, Facebook Home is going to be the best way for those people to experience the Internet on a phone.
The product that Facebook chose to roll this out on, the HTC First, is at best a mid-tier device. But that’s OK. Thinking about it in the context of, say, chamfers or pixel density misses the point. This isn’t a rollout designed for someone who cares about processor speeds. Hell, this isn’t a rollout designed for someone who knows what a processor is. Facebook simply needed to show something that makes it easy to connect, consume and share more content with your friends. It did that. That dive-into Facebook home screen is the only thing that matters — you don’t even have to unlock your screen to dig into social. So who cares if Facebook Home makes its debut on mediocre hardware? Certainly not the people who made Facebook a hit.
Facebook itself is a triumph of mediocrity. It’s not the best communications platform; that’s Twitter or WordPress. It’s not the best photo sharing app; that’s Instagram or Flickr or maybe even Snapchat. It’s certainly not the best app platform, the best address book or the best messaging service. Likewise, it’s so easy to hate on Facebook for privacy policies, or the annoying ads, or for constantly rearranging things, or the things your crazy uncle posts there or, well, hell — take your pick. But Facebook is really, really good at connecting people. And that means it can be just OK at everything else.
Like Facebook, your phone, at its most basic level, is designed to connect you with other people and deliver information. Like Facebook, it is a messaging system that also has applications. The first phone with Facebook Home doesn’t need to amaze. It just has to work. It just needs to prove that it’s good enough at letting you upload pictures of your kid, and good enough at letting your dad easily see pictures of his grandson, and good enough at reminding you that it’s Sam’s birthday and, hey, do you want to say happy birthday? “Happy Birthday, Sam!”
Facebook Home, as Zuckerberg says, is built around people, not apps. Chat Heads personalize your conversations with constant visual reminders of who you are talking to. Updates from friends just magically appear on your lock screen. New messages trickle in while you read the news of the day. It’s your friendly companion, right on your lock screen. As long as it excels at connecting you with other people, and has a clean straightforward design that’s easy to use, it wins. I mean, look at how well that’s worked out for Facebook itself.
And most importantly, this thing is flexible. You can install it yourself, which means Facebook Home will run on lots and lots of Android handsets. And there are an enormous and growing number of Android handsets out there, with more all the time.
Android is already the world’s most dominant mobile OS. In the coming year there are going to be hundreds of millions of Android handsets sold, many for next to nothing in the developing world. At $100, the HTC First with Facebook Home is going to tempt a lot of people who love Facebook (AKA: the Easier Internet). The HTC First may be the first Android handset to come with Facebook Home loaded, but it certainly won’t be the last. Before long, you can bet you’ll be able to pick up a handset with Facebook Home pre-installed for free with a two year contract. (And while this is just a hunch, I suspect there is a strong correlation between people who want a “free” smartphone with people who really dig Facebook.)
Will businesses take to it? Almost certainly not. No business, other than maybe Buzzfeed, wants its employees spending more time on Facebook. Will it be a hit with early adopters and the tech set? That’s laughable. No. Will millions of Americans just want a handset that can run Facebook? That seems like a bet I’d take.
You see, if you’re not already Facebook averse* there’s no real downside to Facebook Home. It’s just more software that makes it easier to do the things you already do without having to give anything up–other than your privacy but that’s a devil’s bargain you long ago forged with Zuck anyway.
There’s another thing Facebook is really good at too, and that’s tracking. And by all appearances this phone is good at that too. It’s going to know where you are, who you’re talking to and when, even what apps you’re running. All of which is great for Facebook, because ultimately Facebook wants to know every little thing it can about you so it can get you to click on some ads.
Facebook Home doesn’t even have to be a hit. At least not right away. The important thing is that it’s out there, and it didn’t require a lot of up-front capital or R&D investment in hardware. It’s a better strategy than anything else the company has done in mobile. People who already really like Facebook will also like this. For people who live in Facebook, it may even drive them to buy one handset over another. Sometimes mediocre is all it takes.