04
Apr
2013-04-04_14h13_39

Today, Facebook announced the Facebook Home suite that we've been hearing so much about. Well, to be more accurate, we've been hearing that Facebook is going to build its own phone and fork Android and create its own special social OS and that it would be the end of Google and that civilization will crash around us and we'll all wear monkey pelts and "Like" statuses by hurling spears through our enemies. Or something. Well, as it turns out, the world didn't end, Android is still whole, and Zuckerberg even thinks the idea of forking an entire OS to make an app is silly.

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So, here's a question: why not? Why didn't Facebook fork Android? It's not like the social giant doesn't love the idea of having a platform that a lot of developers can write for. It's not like being the middle man doesn't have its perks. And it's sure as heck not like Facebook is a tiny little startup that can't get traction. So, what is it? When there is clearly demand (at least in the tech journalism world, which we'll get to later) for a Facebook phone and maybe even an OS, why would it not choose to fork Android and build its own?

A Million Phones Isn't Cool

For starters, building an OS is a huge undertaking. The tech commentariat and the pundits of the blogosphere love the idea of mashing up two unrelated projects like a fanfic author loves crossing Doctor Who and Firefly. However, have you stopped to consider what creating a forked OS would mean? It means that Facebook's primary competition would stop being Google+ and Twitter and start being iOS and Android.

In case you haven't checked the numbers recently, the total number of devices sold/activated between those two platforms easily exceeds a billion. Granted, comparing cumulative device activations with monthly active users is more than a little apples-to-oranges-ish, but the point is that Facebook would be in for much fiercer competition if it decided it wanted to create its own operating system.

More than that, though, making a Facebook-branded phone would not give the company near enough reach. There are over a billion monthly active users on the site. None of them pay a dime to use it. How many of those do you think would be willing to shell out $100 and sign a two-year contract (or pay a lot more for an unsubsidized device) just to have ever-so-slightly faster access to a social network? I'll give you a hint, not many.

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"That's why they create an OS," some might say. "They don't need a phone, they need an army of phones."

Yes, but Facebook doesn't have an army. It has a hulk. One giant, all-powerful app. For all the sarcastic comments about "What's Facebook?" or "Who uses Facebook anymore?" it's still one of the most widely visited sites and apps on the internet. By a huge margin. Claiming otherwise is ignorance. Building an OS would be starting from square one with the hopes of creating what Google and Apple already have all over again.

What would be the benefit?

Creation Myths Need A Devil

Control is the only explanation that anyone who advocates (or speculates about) the idea of a forked version of Android can come up with. Facebook wants to own the user experience, own the data, and own the software stack. After all, that's how Google and Apple do it, right? Even Microsoft tries to get in on this action with its recent move to tie all your services into your Microsoft account.

There's just one problem: Facebook isn't Apple, Google, or Microsoft. When tech sites analyze the "big" companies, it always includes Facebook with them (as well as Amazon, again which we'll get to in a bit). But one of these companies is not like the other. The first three want to be your source for everything. Contacts, calendar, email, documents, videos, search, maps, reminders, notes, chat, oh yes and an operating system. Facebook does these things incidentally, but that is not its main goal. Facebook's main purpose is socialization. This is why it has a product called Events, not "Calendar." It's why there's no "Facebook Notes." It's why the site uses Bing maps instead of building its own. Facebook, will create a product that's similar to something another company does, or that competes with it in some way, but only if they can use it to augment its core business. It won't build a word processor just to have one. In short, Facebook doesn't want the same kind of control over all your data that the other big three want. Just your social data.

More important than the fact that Facebook doesn't want to control all your data (at least right now, anyway), is the fact that it doesn't need to in order to create a completely Facebook-ified exerience. This kind of customization is already allowed in Android. You may know this ability better as "manufacturer skins" or "custom launchers." Both of which Facebook introduced today.

For most devices, Facebook Home will be a replacement to the main launcher. Be it Samsung's Nature UX launcher on the GS3, HTC's Sense launcher on the One, or just the stock Android launcher, Facebook is planning to replace it entirely. This is something you can do yourself right now. In fact, you'll even be able to replace the Facebook Home launcher on the HTC First if you'd like. Craziness!

Speaking of, the other part of Facebook Home is the ability of manufacturers to build it in to their phones if they'd like. This actually results in a tad bit more customization than just the launcher. For example, notifications are built directly into Home with the HTC First, whereas any notifications that aren't Facebook on a regular phone will still use the shade. This kind of tweak requires the deeper changes that have to be built in to the device, but these are already permitted as well.

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These are all Android.

Curiously, some pundits have a bit of trouble with this concept of manufacturer tweaks to Android, but this is the point. This is what Google intended from the very beginning. Android was never meant to be controlled, confined, or shoehorned into a certain look and feel. Facebook doesn't need to fork Android because for years, Mountain View has been asking companies to do exactly this.

You're Not A Fork, You're Just Trying So Hard To Be

You see similar arguments pop up all the time with other companies. Samsung, HTC, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and just about every other manufacturer on the planet has been accused of forking Android (or wanting to). Of them all, Amazon has probably come the closest. The UI on the Kindle Fire HD is entirely distinct and it even has its own Appstore. If there is any company out there that is capable of independently developing its own version of the OS, separate from any Google influence, it's Amazon. But even that isn't entirely forked, as it's still built on Ice Cream Sandwich and the apps in both markets are largely the same.

Everyone else, though? Not really. The beauty of the Android ecosystem is that it's customizable enough to compete with itself. This is something that most people analyzing the tech world don't seem to understand. When Microsoft gained a dominant position with Windows, it became stagnant for many years because it was so ubiquitous that everyone just had to use it, but there was almost nothing to compete with it. Which is why the Windows 8 change has been so drastic when threats suddenly arose.

Android does not have this problem. Android could be used in 100% of all mobile devices and it would not eliminate competition because it competes with itself. And that's good. It means things have to improve. Google might not always be the sole developer of the core of Android, but for right now, other companies being able to do what they want with it is exactly what Android was intended for. There's almost no need for any forking due to branding or ecosystem control reasons. In fact, unless a company has the peripheral services to replace Google entirely (an app store, data centers, etc.), it would be shooting itself in the foot to try.

Tech journalists like the idea, though. We love a good story. Sorry about that, but as writers we're always looking for the most interesting, entertaining way to look at a situation. And Facebook vs. Google sure does have a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Perhaps that's why the industry loves the idea of a Facebook phone. It's a clash of the titans.

Except it doesn't make sense. Zuckerberg even said so himself back in September. A sentiment he echoed today. It almost never makes sense. Forking a project is declaring independence and, at the moment at least, any company that uses Android already would lose more from erecting a wall between itself and Google than it would gain.

Eric Ravenscraft
Eric is a snarky technophile with a taste for the unusual. When he's not obsessing about Android, you can usually find him obsessing about movies, psychology, or the perfect energy drink. Eric weaves his own special blend of snark, satire, and comedy into all his articles.

  • IncCo

    yeah.. its a launcher, like I expected

  • http://profiles.google.com/peter.farac Peter Farac

    Good piece. I'm not a particular fan on Facebook, but I really do appreciate that these options exist on the Android platform so that all users have a choice.

    • http://twitter.com/ToysSamurai Toys Samurai

      And, we really should appreciate that Facebook realizes that this is the "sane" approach to create Facebook Home, instead of skinning the whole OS.

    • albert

      Choice. That's the reason I choose Android. :)

    • Jonathan Epp

      Exactly. Was reading about this on the Verge and everybody was fanboy trolling. I don't like Facebook personally, but this is a brilliant and visionary move on their part. It creates additional consumer options without fragmenting app development.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/thedeusexmakina [J. B. cyruz]

    Not gonna use it because I'm not a fan of facebook, even though I'm on there. But I just wanted to say that this is a nicely written article, I think.

  • TechGuy22

    i have a facebook and my close friends barely on or talk. so theres no way in hell i was gonna change my launcher to fb. they dont even have a decent app. i know that launcher gonna suck

  • http://them3blog.wordpress.com/ Abel

    I won't change my launcher but within my launcher I'll add the Facebook home icon and access it from there... Looks really nice and chat heads are a great idea ....

    • Jack

      you can thank G+ for the chat heads

      • http://them3blog.wordpress.com/ Abel

        You can thank G+ for the circles .... I think the mechanism behind chat heads is quite nice and I can't wait for other revs as well as Google to try it out

    • http://www.dailyplacebo.com/ jeadly

      Are the chat heads available to non-HTC First phones? I thought they were a modification of notifications that aren't possible with just a launcher.

      • http://them3blog.wordpress.com/ Abel

        I don't have the app so that I cannot tell you, chat heads are totally possible on a not forked OS, then lilipad or glovebox or even floating apps with some work any Dev can create a floating chat that works like that... Its just no one ever thought it could be a bread idea... Same applies with services like popup play from the galaxy and floating apps... All of them can exist without Samsung overlay modifications, so chat heads are totally possible on any device.... But will have to wait and see

  • Hands0n

    Brilliant article. Absolutely spot on. Hammer hits nail on head, and any other superlatives you can think of.

    The Android model is consistently and persistently confused by the reporting media. "Tech journalists like the idea, though. We love a good story. Sorry about that, but as writers we're always looking for the most interesting, entertaining way to look at a situation. And Facebook vs. Google sure does have a nice ring to it, doesn't it? "

    Thank you for an enlightening and educating article. I do hope that it gets widespread circulation.

    • Isabel Herron

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    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000003999549 Mike Harris

      I completely agree. This is one of those articles where I'm constantly looking for a "Like" button after I get done reading.

    • Carlos Paixao

      I feel that nowadays everybody is overdoing "social" use. We use to share and interact with poor content, spreading trash over the web and over people's brain.
      Perhaps we just need to be a little less social, avoid this excess, and I think that Facebook or even a Google+ Home may contribute to people get tired of others rather than get involved.

  • http://twitter.com/djspy DJ SPY

    I can't believe people are so up in arms about a launcher. Going on the defensive and thumping their chests declaring they're not going to use it! As if someone were holding a gun to their heads.

  • http://twitter.com/Trampster1922 Dave.

    Not on Facebook, wouldn't go near it & annoyed I cannot remove standard facebook app from my HTC android. As for the Windows comment, recently bought a new laptop with Windows 8. Hated it so wiped it & installed WIn 7. Facebook launcher will never appear on my devices, & progress like this is not always good.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000003999549 Mike Harris

      You could root it if you want to remove facebook that badly. And then un-root it afterwards if that somehow worries you.

      With regards to Windows 8, why not just switch to Desktop as soon as it loads? I think there are even apps that can do this automatically so you never have to look at the stupid Metro launcher (I forget its real name). Essentially, you then have Windows 7 (or even 7+). I have Windows 8 to play around with and it doesn't bother me to switch right over to desktop. That's probably because the system launches in under 10 seconds. I'm not sure how much of that is attributed to Windows 8 or how much is due to the nice SSD I got, but it still blows me away how fast the boot time is. And it shuts down in about 2-3 seconds.

      • marcusmaximus04

        ClassicShell is a good one. Installed it on my Windows 8 machine at home, now have all the improvements in windows 8(and there are a few of them) with none of the downsides. And it's free.

  • cy_n_ic

    Wondering how many people will buy the phone and slap apex or nova on it after they find out the fb launcher is as bad as their regular app lulz

    • PCSievers

      How many people do you think are going to buy a midrange phone priced at $450 off contract (100 on) who know what Apex and Nova even are?

      The thing about Facebook Home is that it clearly isnt aimed at "techies" and a lot of techies even those paid to write about this just plainly dont get it. The launcher and associated phone is there for people like my mum and facebook addicts who spend a tonne of time on their smartphone solely using that social network.

      An actual professional tech writer:

      "I see no reason to use a Facebook Home powered phone. Plus, forced to see ads later, while not even in an actual app? No thanks."

      Maybe this person is just speaking for themselves and not others but there is an obvious market for a launcher that puts facebook front and centre and it takes little imagination to see this being popular. Plus we have no idea how the adverts will be implemented so its really dumb to claim that is an issue. There was a day when Facebook itself never had adverts, then it did, no one cared.

      (kinda went on a tangent there, this post could be directed at more than just cy_n_ic but he was in the crosshairs at the time)

      • Qwahchees

        Solid point. I bet most people commenting dislike using Facebook. I only use it to look at memes and update my page.

      • carlisimo

        Actually... this is one of the better Android phones available if you think 4.7" is too big. I'd consider buying it and replacing the launcher, sadly enough.

  • Anonymous

    Hhhhehehehehe "Sense"

  • Sapko82

    Why would anyone want to fork it when you can spoon it?

    • Abhisshack D

      LOL

    • John Wolf

      Careful, two guys lost their jobs over such comments :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000003999549 Mike Harris

        You act like Sapko82 whipped out his dongle or something.

      • mgamerz

        1 guy, 1 girl*

  • Kenneth Porter

    I absolutely love the editorials here at AP. Great work Eric

  • AllPurposeRadio

    I rue the day I ever bought my Kindle Fire. I can not understate how awful the Amazon Appstore is.

    • Sootie
    • Cuvis

      I installed the Amazon Appstore on my old phone. Not even the allure of free apps could get me to keep it. Awful, awful, AWFUL.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000003999549 Mike Harris

      I've used it daily since Day 1 just for the free paid apps, but I try to close out of it as soon as I can (which is not immediately because there is so much lag). I'm really surprised after all this time that is still sucks so bad.

  • Adam Smith

    Brilliant article. Can't wait to read some more by you.

  • betit

    Competition is always good, at least in most markets, especially consumer related ones. I am not sure whether the HTC First will be competing with the Iphone, galaxy s 3/4 over the same market, but if so google should be very happy, otherwise not really. But the main reason why competition is best for everybody is because google will have to awnser to fb home and hopefully will bring a unified chat with sms intergration and not only google services like talk and g+ .... but even with facebook and twitter. So that the stock google chat app would be better not only at design and speed, but even have more functions than fb home. Lets face it the current chat apps from google suck (I am not even sure which one I mean :D)

  • http://www.facebook.com/RDJCook Rob Cook

    I put the same comment out at a different site but what I find most interesting to contemplate is that if Facebook Home succeeds how long will it be before other companies take the time to build their own custom launchers. It's a brilliant idea that has great potential really.

    You like my product? Well let me show you what I have for your phone...

    • Jonathan Epp

      Yeah, it would be interesting to see Blackberry and Microsoft create launchers to trial run their own experiences. Likely never happen, but still... Microsoft could use it to push Bing and it's own service tie-ins, and BB could use it to avoid their app development problem.

  • nejai

    Nice Article

  • http://www.twitter.com/ninjustin ninjustin

    I actually like this not necessarily that Facebook did it but the Home features themselves are nice. It's smart if you want a Facebook phone you install the Facebook phone. You want stock phone you keep the stock phone. You want Nova launcher there you go. Want to mount a phone tablet in your car Car Home Ultra is there for you. Want to switch between any and all at any point in time the functionality there.

    I can't think of anyone specific off hand but I actually hope more companies come up with new UI's (launchers) for Android. I love that you can do this with that option.

  • Joe_HTH

    LOL! Google is not like Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft and Apple make money by selling products or services, like most companies. Google makes 99% of it's revenue and profits on buying and selling people's data to the highest bidder for the purpose of ads.

  • primalxconvoy

    "... It's why there's no "Facebook Notes..."

    ORLY?

    - http://www.facebook.com/blog/blog.php?post=416553117130

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