April 4, 2013, 1:06 PM

Facebook takes over Android phones with its new Home app

Home turns smartphones into social-oriented devices.

Rather than manufacture its own smartphone or create a new mobile operating system, Facebook is sinking its teeth deeper into mobility through an Android app that changes the way a smartphone looks and operates. The goal is to make Facebook the preeminent mobile activity, weaving the social network’s features and functions into the routine operations of Android devices and orienting the devices around people rather than apps.

Home will be available as a free download from the Google Play store starting April 12. Home works on the HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II. Home will also work on the forthcoming HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, and on more Android devices in the coming months, Facebook says.

Additionally, Home will be available pre-installed on phones through the Facebook Home Program, through which Facebook will partner with smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers. HTC and AT&T are the first companies working together to deliver a phone with Home pre-installed. It’s called the HTC First, and it goes on sale April 12.

Once Home is installed, when a consumer wakes her phone she is presented with the cover feed, which replaces the lock screen and the home screen of the phone. Friend updates, shared items and news feed messages, including ads, appear onscreen atop an image or artwork.

“You might have missed these updates before, but now they’re a central part of the Home experience,” Facebook writes in an official blog post. “Since Home is both your lock screen and home screen, the content comes right to you. You can flip through to see more stories, and double tap to Like what you see. Cover feed is for those in-between moments ­like waiting in line at the grocery store or between classes ­when you want to see what’s going on in your world.”

This also gives retailers an opportunity to get even closer to consumers through placement of mobile ads in news feeds that will bubble up onto the Android phones’ home screens.

“Chat heads” is another feature of the Home app. The app displays small pictures of friends along with corresponding chat text. Chat messages from friends are displayed on a portion of the screen no matter what a consumer is doing on the phone. So if a consumer is checking e-mail, browsing the web or listening to music, the Home app will display a chat head upon receipt of a message. And since text messaging is integrated into Facebook Messenger for Android, chat heads include Facebook messages as well as texts.

Home also sends smartphone users notifications of certain Facebook activity.

“Cover feed is great for seeing everything going on in the world. But when something happens that’s more important and directed at you, like a friend posting on your timeline, you’ll receive notifications with their profile pictures,” Facebook writes. “To open notifications, just tap them. And if you don’t want to deal with them right now, you can just swipe to hide them and keep flipping through cover feed until you want them back.”

To get to the conventional home screen that displays all the apps available on the phone, a consumer swipes up in cover feed.

“To users, the sell here will be making it easier to share information, photos and so on with friends. But to Facebook, this is about becoming more deeply embedded in the operating system on mobile devices, and creating a broader platform,” says Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at technology research firm Ovum. “Since Facebook doesn’t make an operating system for mobile devices, this is the next best thing. It will allow Facebook to track more of a user’s behavior on devices, and present more opportunities to serve up advertising, which is Facebook’s main business model.”

And that will be the biggest obstacle to success for Home: Facebook’s objectives and users’ objectives are in conflict, as users don’t want more advertising or tracking and Facebook wants to do more of both, Dawson adds.

“This is a great experiment for Facebook,” Dawson says. “It’s much lower risk than developing a phone or an operating system of its own, and if it turns out not to be successful, there will be little risk or loss to Facebook. If it does turn out to be successful, Facebook can build on the model further and increase the value provided in the application over time. The biggest challenge will be that it can’t replicate this experience on iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry, the three other main platforms.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its mobile tracking and advertising intentions.

Deeper engagement with mobile phone users could potentially mean more mobile advertising dollars for Facebook, says Clark Fredricksen, an analyst at research firm eMarketer Inc.

“The company’s mobile business is growing rapidly,” he says. “Facebook is expected to earn $1.53 billion in mobile advertising revenue worldwide this year, according to eMarketer, up from just $470.7 million last year. In 2014, Facebook is expected to see global mobile ad revenue reach $2.7 billion.”

The percentage of Facebook’s business expected to come from mobile is growing quickly each year, Fredricksen adds. In 2011 Facebook earned no advertising revenue from mobile, but in 2012 more than 11% of the company’s revenue came from mobile, eMarketer estimates. This year more than 27% of the company’s global ad revenue is expected to come from mobile advertising, a figure that will grow to 38% by 2014, eMarketer estimates.

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