Facebook Home: good for Android, bad for Google

Facebook unveiled the next major part of their mobile strategy today with the Facebook Home announcement. Let’s talk about it from a few different angles.

Presentation

The event itself was quite compact, a no-fluff, well-rehearsed show (perhaps they took note of Samsung’s controversial Galaxy s4 event in New York some weeks earlier). There seemed to be some ramblings from the tech press about seating arrangements (lack of space/tables). The appearance of the CEOs of HTC and AT&T are obviously for show, but it did demonstrate that Facebook’s all grown up now and can demand the attention of industry heavy-weights when they want support.

Implications to Android eco-system

To the Android eco-system as a whole, this is overall a great new product. Facebook Home is the type of customization that may well be unique to Android (both Apple and Microsoft likely want too much control of their OS to allow this type of customization), and helps improve Android’s position at the high end of the marketplace versus Apple.

Many commentators have noted that this is not a fork; some have claimed this is the first step to a fork down the line. I think those are valid points. The consideration from Facebook’s point of view should be, what kind of an experience are we aiming to offer to Android users, and do we need to go as far as forking to offer that experience? Right now, Facebook Home is primarily about raising mobile engagement with Facebook, and taking over mobile messaging. To that end, a fork is not necessary as long as Google allows this type of deep customization.

Should Facebook Home take off in the market place, it is not inconceivable to see Facebook advance lower into the software stack, and go into a full fork when it needs to. A scenario could be – Facebook Home takes significant market share within Android; Facebook then plans to roll out its own Android app marketplace, with built-in Facebook tie in (all apps come integrated with Facebook data); by wanting to roll out its own Android marketplace, Facebook would likely have to declare a fork as it is running right against Google Play.

Facebook Home also shows a new path for all parties interested in bending Android to their benefit. This halfway measure (to a full fork, which is costly to maintain) makes a lot of sense to many established Internet services. For example, why wouldn’t Tencent do something similar (outside of the fact that the Android landscape in China is a mess and it would be difficult to create a middleware offering)?

Implications to OTT messaging apps

Just yesterday, I had written about OTT messaging apps and their potential threat to Facebook. Facebook Home is a large counter-offensive in this regard. Facebook is putting its messaging service front and center. It wants Facebook chat to be the ubiquitous messaging service for Android users.

What’s curiously missing then, as I think about it, is the lack of details around how Facebook Home will tackle the issue of address book management. Will Facebook Home merge your address book with your Facebook friends data? When you create a new contact, would it automatically try to find the person on Facebook and add him/her as a friend? I don’t think Facebook talked about this topic at all today. It would be a jarring, disjointed experience if your interactions with your facebook friends were this beautifully designed flow, while your interactions with real-life people (the folks who call you and message you) is still the stock Android experience. Perhaps this is something next on the to-do list for the product.

In this one regard, OTT apps such as whatsapp still offer a better flow. It doesn’t have the legacy baggage of trying to match a phone number with a Facebook identity – your phone number is your unique identifier, so when you add someone to your phonebook, the person will show up in these OTT apps instantly. For example, WeChat gives you a hint whenever one of your contacts has signed up for the service.

As to whether OTT apps are seriously threatened by Facebook Home – I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, in that there will be a segment of users whose needs will be fully served by Home and therefore lost. No, in that Facebook Home is unique to Android (a small portion of Android too), and one of the biggest value propositions of these OTT apps is that they are ubiquitous and fully cross-platform. A great example to think of is Apple’s iMessage – I love the service since it comes right out of the box and requires no setup, but I still need to use whatsapp / weChat etc. because not all my friends use iPhones.

Implications to Google

Everyone is now eagerly awaiting Google’s response. Many have joked today that Google will unveil “Google+ Home” at Google I/O. In all seriousness, now is a great time for Google to reflect on what is the future direction of Android, with Samsung commanding 40% of all Android shipments on the one hand and Facebook launching a direct take-over of Android’s user experience on the other.

Google could choose to close off Android in the sense that if you want Google’s services (Google Play, Gmail, Maps, Youtube) on your phone, you cannot use such a deep customization as Facebook Home; but that would also take Samsung’s TouchWiz as collateral damage, and I’m not sure Google’s ready for that confrontation yet. Of course, it could make special deals with Samsung so that TouchWiz is exempt, but that could make relationships with hardware vendors even more complicated (side deals everywhere).

Google could choose to make pinpointed counter offensives, such as cloning Facebook’s Chat Heads so that there’s less value in installing Home. But such services would quickly run into the same problems Google has on the web – it doesn’t own the social network. A fancy Android-only chat feature is of little use if you need to add your social network into it first. It could be a cool OTT app, but it won’t have access to the rich sharing and interactions that are happening on Facebook.

Google could choose to stay the course and just focus on making Android and Google’s services on Android better. It could also focus on whatever plans it has for Motorola, should it go the direction of offering strong Google hardware. As long as users demand Gmail / Maps / Youtube, to a certain extent Google doesn’t need to respond. However, they will surely be constantly bothered by how Facebook has taken over all the real estate on their OS, which Facebook surely can use to promote other services in future.

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