Facebook announced last week their new experience for Android smartphones, called Facebook Home. This is Facebook’s first major attempt to control more of the phone’s experience without actually selling a phone. Facebook Home is pre-installed on the HTC First and also users of select HTC and Samsung phones can install it from Google Play. I primarily use an HTC One X+, installed Facebook Home, and I am sorry to say, the experience was everything I was afraid it would be… a thick and clunky launcher that drains your battery, slows down and gets in the way of everything except Facebook. I want to share with you my experiences, and based on that and other data points, piece together the implications. Let me start with some background.
Facebook has received significant investor scrutiny to increase mobile monetization ever since they went public. Every quarter since they went public, they have been dogged by institutional investors, so the pressure was on Facebook to improve their mobile strategy and execution. It started with an improved Facebook, Messenger and Camera app (iOS) and it appeared that Facebook was on a little bit of a mobile roll. Speculation grew that Facebook would in fact, partner with HTC on a “Facebook Phone”, but instead launched Facebook Home. Let me talk about my experiences…
From the start, Facebook Home looked beautiful, with edge to edge photos of my timeline. It looked like a combination between XBOX 360 animations and Path simplicity. If all one wants to do is breeze through timeline and “like” and comment on items, it’s great, but using the other 99 smartphone features the experience starts to unravel.
Swiping my Chat Head up exposes my apps that were in folders or on the top screens. Note I say “were in folders” because my folders were removed, the apps pulled out and spread out onto four screens that I need to scroll horizontally. Heck, even Apple learned that phone app icons worked better in folders. The change is simply confusing. My weather app is now on page four, which defeated the purpose of having it on page one where I wanted it. If you scroll all the way to left you see “All Apps”, which, of course you scroll vertically to scroll through. Confused yet? What would really help here is something like Apple’s Spotlight Search. But hey, Facebook is now at war with Google, so maybe they feel they have to remove search and choose rivalry over usage…. or they assume people don’t have a lot of apps.
After using a non-Facebook app like Pulse Reader, you press the phone’s home button and you are back into Facebook world, which took between 5-10 seconds if over a telephone network. The screen would be black and a white swirl would spin counter-clockwise, Facebook Home’s version of the hour-glass. The experience was much better over a WiFi connection. Let’s talk notifications.
In Android, notifications display on the top band of the phone. Facebook Home default installation removes that band, so if you get Twitter, email or low battery notifications, you won’t see them. Facebook, Instagram, and text notifications show up as Chat Heads. To see non-Facebook notifications, users must swipe once to see them then swipe twice to pull down the notification menu. If you want to see the status bar, you need to go into Facebook Home settings and click “show status bar”. Facebook Home also covers up alarms that come through my “Alarm” clock. You can hear the alarm clock, but you don’t see it and need to plow through menus to snooze or shut it off. This isn’t what I want to be doing at 5AM. Let me move to heat and battery life.
Facebook Home is on most of the time and therefore like all active apps, uses power. I will estimate that my battery life was reduced by 30%. This is very unscientific test, but what was most telling was the error message that kept popping up. It said, “Battery is low. The charging current is not enough for device power consumption. Please switch to AC adapter”. Problem was is that I was connected to an AC adapter, but my phone and Facebook Home was sucking more power than could be replenished. As you would expect, Facebook Home heated up my phone, warmer than any game had done. This is simple physics, but not something you expect from a social media app. Let me finish off my experience with privacy.
There is no default-privacy with Facebook Home, period. Your timeline is defaulted “open” for anyone to see. It is above the lock screen and is just like a screen saver. Literally, I could walk over to someone’s phone with Facebook Home and watch their timeline…. And “like” and even comment. Like all Facebook privacy invasions, you can shut this off in settings.
So is it just me who found major issues with Facebook Home? Absolutely not. 47% people who rated Facebook Home on Google Play gave it a 1 out of 5 stars. As I dig into the comments, I definitely see most of the issues I outlined below. This isn’t some anti-Facebook conspiracy as Facebook’s other Android apps receive rave reviews. As a comparison, Facebook Messenger received 5% one star rating. Net-net, my Facebook Home experiences were shared by many others. So I have spent a lot of time on the experience, but what about the implications?
As we have seen so many times before with apps like V1 of Apple Maps that received very polarizing rankings, large companies do act as quickly as possible and make quick improvements to their app. I believe Facebook, who is famous for their all-night hackathons, will move quickly, but with such fundamental and major issues, I’m skeptical they can remove all the issues. Removing folders is a major mistake and Facebook will end up adding those back in or adding some kind of search. Making it nearly impossible to find your apps isn’t a good way to get the focus on Facebook and without that, many will just uninstall it.
I believe the lagginess, heat generation and the battery life-sucking nature of Facebook Home will be very extremely difficult to fix on current devices like mine without a major architectural change or major sub-optimizations of the code. Because this most likely won’t get fixed, many people will just uninstall it and move on.
Facebook had an extremely rocky start on a strategically important endeavor. It demonstrates just how difficult it is to “own” an experience by putting a skin or launcher on top of an operating system. Facebook will need to go deeper like Amazon did with their own device and experience or sit in “no-man’s land” between themselves, Google, and the handset manufacturers. While this is a very risky move and not what investors want to hear, Facebook may need to do this to completely monetize mobility. You will see small baby-steps on this path as Facebook starts to control more of a certain brand’s experience but ultimately Facebook will get out of this middle ground and do their own phone or remain a collection of apps in someone else’s experience.