The ‘Facebook Phone’ and Déjà vu

Well, everyone was wrong. Lazy tech journalists/sensationalisers thought it’d be a Facebook phone, while seasoned reporters thought it’d be the new Facebook app for Android. In the end, it was neither.

Facebook announced its new ‘Home on Android’; Google’s mobile operating system. The new product is called Facebook Home and it’s really just a skin for Android. A very flashy, swish skin, but a skin nonetheless.

The presentation was filled with déjà vu. Mark Zuckerberg stood up and declared how, ultimately, the way we interact with our devices hasn’t changed since the first PCs decades ago. A grid of apps we open, use and then close. A system where every function is segregated, nothing flows and you have to hop from environment to environment to accomplish even just a few simple tasks.

He talked of how this had been replicated on the phone and wondered if there wasn’t a better way of putting people at the heart of your mobile experience.

Over two years ago, Microsoft announced the same thing with Windows Phones, the mobiles that featured live and updating coloured tiles giving you the news, the weather, updates from your contacts and a visual philosophy different from anything we’d really seen before. Think of the new Nokia phones, if you will.

Its goal was to put you and your contacts first. It had a ‘People Hub’ that collated updates from Facebook, Twitter and more in one stream, allowed you to tap on a contact and see their latest updates and photos and, a few months later, let you group contacts under one tile to get their updates collated, too.

So Zuckerberg’s analysis of devices wasn’t new, it was eerily familiar. But what does he offer over Windows Phones, the self-professed ‘social phones’?

When you first start the phone, you’ll see the screen fill with an image from your Facebook timeline and the message that came with it. Very minimalist. Double tap, and you can ‘Like’ it. Swipe left and you can see the next update on your timeline, with the same format as the last – big pretty image with text.

This also includes updates from brands. Yep – advertising comes full screen, right on your home screen.

Your Android apps are just a tap away and you use them as normal, so don’t be afraid, but the other stand-out feature is ‘chat heads’. While that name sounds mad, like a neon coloured gobstopper to be precise, it’s a bit more functional.

When you get a new Facebook message (or text), the sender’s Facebook picture will appear on the side of the phone. Tap it, and, over the app you’re in, the message appears with the conversation stream – no need to leave the app.

Flashy and handy, but – and let’s be honest here – there’s more to life than Facebook. Facebook is not the best place to read the news, catch-up on Twitter or the like. One stream of information does not reflect how any of us take in the content we’re interested in.

Facebook Home

The goal is clear – make a way of increasing the prominence of brands (so Facebook can get more money from advertisers) and try to dominate more time from its users.

Right now, I don’t know if chat heads or the timeline integrate more than just Facebook services – Facebook Chat (and SMS), Facebook timeline and Instagram – but I doubt it does. I doubt I’ll be able to weave in updates on the Facebook Home start screen from news, weather and/or twitter as with other phones.

The simplicity is appealing, but we’re not as simple as Facebook Home needs us to be, to be of real value.

I don’t want a general feed with smatterings of updates I’m interested in. I want lashings of news when I want news, Twitter updates when I want Twitter updates and sports news till the cows come home, when the spirit moves me. Each of those is just a tap away – hardly great effort. Why would I compromise that type of experience for a smartphone home screen that tries to mimic the best of the ‘dumb phones’, but with a fresh lick of paint?

The Facebook Home skin may prove popular. It may be the slow start of Facebook muscling in properly into mobile. More functionality may come – though it may be galling for Facebook to incorporate competitors into its service.

As it stands, a swipe-able home screen is nice and their method of stealthily bringing in prominent advertising to mobile is smart, but both are features that could be brought into other phones.

In the end, it’s not for me. I agree that the Windows 95 idea of a static grid of apps that can’t work together is tired and far from the best experience. While Facebook Home tries to be the social phone, a moniker Microsoft also claims, it denies you a full social experience. It’s not a ‘social’ phone, it’s a ‘Facebook’ phone – no LinkedIn, no Twitter – and beyond social only offers up vague titbits of things you’re interested in, assuming they’re in your Facebook feed. Really, it ends up feeling like a Diet Coke Windows Phone. Just too few calories.

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