Facebook‘s new approach to Android is called Home–and it takes on rival Google in the key battle for consumers’ mobile usage.
Facebook Home is not exactly an app and it’s not exactly an operating system either–but a little of both. Home will be available both pre-installed on the new HTC First device and also is downloadable on other Android devices, though the downloadable version won’t have all the features that the HTC First does.
Facebook Home is a whole set of features that Facebook-izes the mobile Android device. It includes Cover Feed, in which you get your friend’s photos and status updates as soon as you turn on the phone. There’s also Chat heads, which are Facebook messages you can get and respond to even while using other apps.
From Google’s perspective, having a version of Android that is completely focused on Facebook, one of its growing competitors, can’t be a great feeling. Granted, Android is an open system that anyone can manipulate to their liking, which is what has made it so broadly adopted and successful. Amazon made its own version with the Kindle Fire. But Facebook’s approach is much deeper and a more direct threat than Amazon’s, which still focuses on media consumption.
Facebook, with this approach to Android, on the other hand turns the entire device into a Facebook device. You can still access other apps on the phone, such as Google Maps, Gmail and Google Search. But now that Facebook is essentially the home screen of the device, Facebook can siphon off more and more users into its services and away from Google services.
For example, with messages, why click off to Google Talk or Google Voice when you can send Facebook messages (or text messages) direct through Facebook? Facebook is undoubtedly going to add more mobile services which could give less reason to leave the grasp of Facebook. And what if Facebook eventually expands its Graph Search to a fuller search engine that is accessible from Facebook Home? That would be the biggest direct threat to Google’s search engine. (As Danny Sullivan notes, Google search is already more difficult to get to from Facebook Home than in vanilla Android.)
Fragmentation of Android has been increasing and it’s a question of whether Google will allow it indefinitely. “More and more of this is happening in the ecosystem that should concern Google,” said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. “I wonder how long it will be until (Google) will limit what you get in the open source” part of Android. In other words, will Google keep certain parts of Android for devices that it favors?
Another question for Google is the fragmentation of mobile search. Just as people increasingly search for shopping products on Amazon rather than Google, Facebook Home could siphon more people to Facebook.
The question is how many people will want to adopt Facebook Home? Will it become a more niche product like the original Rockmelt social web browser with Facebook integration? Or will it become a mainstream phenomenon? If it really goes mainstream, that would be cause for concern at Google.