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.


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.

Twitter, Facebook and Google: the competition under convergence

Last Wednesday I attended the first Twitter developer conference (Chirp), at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. While Chirp is very much being shadowed by today’s Facebook f8 conference (both companies seem to see each other as major competitors), it was still a coming-out party of sorts, a declaration that Twitter is now big enough to host a conference with 1,000 developers.

My biggest takeaway from Chirp was how ambitious the Twitter team is. For a company that has long been under critics’ fire for not having a business model, the core of its strategy remains surprisingly attached to “getting the product right” first. The company’s priorities, according to CEO Ev Williams, is “0. Infrastructure; 1. Friction-free; 2. Relevance; 3. Revenue.” Revenue was decidedly last on the list.

Infrastructure is easy to understand – Twitter has been hurt by scaling pains so many times that it makes sense that the company is focused on coping with the growth first and foremost. Friction-free is about making the service easier to use, especially in the context of retaining new users, which was Ev’s rationale for the Tweetie acquisition. Friction-free is also the thinking behind the @anywhere initiative – so that users can use Twitter anywhere on the web, and not be interrupted by having to open another web-page etc. Relevance is partly about search, and partly about new features such as location and annotations.

And this is where things start to get interesting. For a long time, Twitter itself did not have an inbuilt search function; a number of 3rd party developers offered competing Twitter search products. The leader of these products, Summize, was eventually acquired by Twitter; but as Ev described it at Chirp, it was more like a merge of equals (size of team etc.). While the Twitter team didn’t talk a lot about search, I felt the key to the service’s relevance, and future business model, would be search – how do you organize this world of information (to paraphrase Google’s mission) stored in the billions of tweets, so that value can be extracted?

This is by no means an easy task. The distinctiveness about Twitter is its timeliness – you can literally find out what’s going in the world right now. However, this also makes search, or any other type of data organization, technically complex. Annotations and other types of meta-data helps reduce the complexity, as well as efforts to understand the users’ intent – are you looking for info on a specific location or event – but it will still be a daunting problem. (Google and Bing has had access to Twitter’s data-stream for a while now, but whether it’s for lack of trying or the complexity of the issue, their current use of Twitter data in their search results seem largely inconsequential.)

Still, if the Twitter team can crack this nut, then they may have on their hands a truly blockbuster product. The beauty of Twitter is how many different usages people have come up with for it – as a communications tool, it is simply an enabler of numerous services. If they can make their information much more organized through search, then the value of the communication tool is enhanced, as well as the services built on top of it. The recent story of how Twitter can be used to predict box office success is just one example of the potential value.

(This post was written over several days so the thought-flow is somewhat broken.)

When I was interviewing for my summer internship, I got asked the question “if you had funding to build a new search engine, what would you do?” My response was you can either tackle the existing search problem through a drastically different algorithm, or focus on specific verticals (e.g. travel) or new markets (mobile, location). If we change the phrase “search engine” to “method of organizing information”, then certainly both Twitter and Facebook are taking on a differentiated approach from Google. While the three companies may at face value be in very discrete markets, they are on a unavoidable collision course in terms of competition. While Google is all about indexing the static web, Facebook and Twitter are built on the social web, and they may well grow to become the Google killer that many have been searching for.

This is not as far-stretched as you may think. Think about the last time you performed a search. Did you ask any friends first? Was it only when they said “I don’t know” that you replied, “don’t worry about it. I’ll just Google it.”? Google search is powerful and hugely useful, but only to the extent of how useful the static pages it indexes are. When you do a search on a specific question, you often have to tinker it a few times. Click on a few different search results. Read through them. Often the pages won’t have the answer to the exact question you have, but enough info to give you pieces of the puzzle so you can piece it together. This is still much, much more efficient compared to doing research at the library, but the power of the social web is that you are not confined to static pages and information – the odds are that there is some person out there who knows exactly the answer to your question, and the power of the social web is that it enables you to ask that person directly. Quite a few of the people I follow on Twitter use it as a magical search engine – you pose a question on Twitter and your followers answer it.

Of course, this is just one specific scenario where social web services such as Twitter and Facebook have the upper hand against Google (and for the many, many instances where you need static information Google is still the better option – e.g. what is the year that the US was founded); but it does highlight Google’s key vulnerability – its lack of presence in social. Be it Orkut, Wave or Buzz, Google has repeatedly shown its inability to come up with a competitive social networking product. Maybe Google simply doesn’t have the social genes in its DNA – which is fine, as for the foreseeable future they will still make a killing in Adwords/Adsense. But the danger for Google is that search gets demoted from a primary instinct into a secondary instinct, the same way that Kayak / Mobissimo / Bing Travel and other vertical search engines have made Google irrelevant in travel search. It will still be a huge market, but only a less efficient/user-friendly alternative. And it’s clear from Facebook this week and Twitter last week that these companies have huge ambitions too in organizing the world’s information – hence the competition will be inevitable.

One last note – while Facebook has seemed to garner much more attention and praise with its announcements, Twitter’s efforts, especially in mobile shouldn’t be disregarded. The news today that Twitter has acquired SMS service Cloudhopper may sound insignificant to those of us who are used to iPhone apps and 3G networks, but in the grand scheme of things SMS is still such a viable and active method of information delivery. It will be interesting to see how Twitter uses SMS to its advantage.