Facebook isn’t making phones. Instead, the social networking giant is making software called “Home” that will add a Facebook interface to Android phones, making an aggressive move onto the most popular mobile device platform.
The free software will be available next week, enabling people to turn their phones into “Facebook phones” if they choose. The company said it “designed Home to be the next version of Facebook.” It also takes its competition with Google to a new level, by effectively taking over phones based on Google’s Android software.
“Home isn’t a phone or operating system, and it’s also more than just an app,” the company said in its much hyped announcement today. “Home is a completely new experience that lets you see the world through people, not apps.”
Speculation about Facebook’s phone ambitions swirled in recent weeks, with some predicting the company would manufacture its own hardware in partnership with HTC, which worked on a Facebook phone called the Status. The device came out in 2011 and wasn’t a hit.
This time around, HTC is making an Android phone that will come preloaded with Home and be sold exclusively through AT&T starting on April 12. But that’s a secondary announcement to Facebook’s mobile ambitions.
By building software that can be downloaded on multiple devices — rather than built into particular hardware — Facebook likely will reach more users with Home. It’s also asserting that its services deserve more prominence on Android devices than other apps and the operating system’s interface.
It’s a bold move in several ways. Facebook is pushing Google into the background on devices running Google’s mobile operating system. Facebook also is gambling that users will like its service enough to Facebook-ify their phones, letting the company fill their pocket screens with news feeds, manage access to other applications and increase its ability to monetize mobile users.
Windows Phone users are already familiar with deep Facebook integration on their devices. Microsoft, an early investor in Facebook, blends photos and contacts from the service into its phone platform, moving it from app to cornerstone.
Here’s how Facebook summarized its goals, in the Home announcement:
We designed Home to be the next version of Facebook. But we also wanted to do something more. We wanted to reimagine the way we all use computing devices to make us more connected and bring us closer to the people we care about.
Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg shared more details in an interview with Fortune magazine. He said the company retooled last year to do mobile development, figuring out “how rich of an experience we can build that spans not just building an app but gets as deep into the system as we want.”
Zuckerberg also put to rest rumors of Facebook building a phone or an operating system, saying neither is in the works:
If you build a phone, and it goes well, it sells low tens of millions of units. I mean, we serve a billion people. So even if we built a phone and 30 million people bought it, which would be a wild success, that would be 3 percent of the people we serve. We are not going to totally rotate our company to build something that is only going to help out 3 percent of our people in a good case.
Instead he’s seeking to enable people to wrap their phones with Facebook.
The Home software replaces the lock and home screen on smartphones with a stream of photos and updates called “cover feed,” as shown in the image above. With a sliding gesture, users can scroll through images from their friends, and “like” them with a double-tap on the screen.
The cover also includes a software “home” button — superseding the Android home button on the phone — that surfaces Facebook updates and can be swiped to launch apps and Facebook messaging.
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The software also brings Facebook’s chat and messaging capabilities to the fore. When friends send a message, a “chat head” showing their profile picture appears so the conversation can be initiated.
Facebook Home is like a shell that encases the phone, taking over its user interface. Home can also be used to access other apps on the phone, through its “launcher” page, rather than the phone’s home screen.
The software will be available April 12 as a free download for the HTC One X and One X+ and the Samsung Galaxy S III and Note II. It also is expected to be available on the upcoming HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 and “more Android devices in the coming months.”
HTC (which has its U.S. headquarters in Bellevue) and AT&T also announced that they’ll begin selling the HTC First with Home preloaded next week for $100 with a two-year contract.
“The HTC First will offer the best Facebook Home experience on mobile, right out of the box. That’s why we’re committed to
this phone and making it exclusive in our stores,” Ralph de la Vega, president and chief executive of AT&T Mobility, said in a release.
The HTC First (below) will come in red, blue, white and black cases, with a 4.3-inch display, Android 4.1, LTE capability and a dual-core processor.
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