By Rob Walker
Sometime in the past few days, the longstanding rumors around the arrival of a Facebook Phone seemed to deflate. It wouldn’t so much be a piece of original hardware, reminiscent of how Amazon charged into the gadget category with the Kindle, but just an Android phone, manufactured by HTC, that happened to start users off with the Facebook app instead of the more familiar array of app icons.
This scenario was basically confirmed by today’s official announcement from Mark Zuckerberg and his lieutenants. Called Facebook Home, it’s a launch option that’s a modified and snazzier iteration of the existing Facebook app, one that the social network hopes to make available across as many devices as it can.
The starting-point interface is supervisual, drawing on photos from your Facebook News Feed. Also, the principle functionality selling point involves an unfortunately named “Chat Heads” feature that makes it possible to communicate with friends without leaving Home (as it were). But the upshot is a kind of Facebook layer built over the Android operating system: When you turn your phone on, the first thing you see is content drawn from your Facebook News Feed. You can maneuver away from this, but it’s clearly designed to keep you within Facebook-land as long as possible.
The HTC phone that’s preloaded with Facebook Home will sell for $99.99. A version that works with a number of other Android phones will be available for download on April 12. (There will be no iPhone version for now.)
All of this sounds like much ado about circumventing the single screen-touch that it currently takes to access Facebook’s existing app. But the idea at the core of the non-Facebook-Phone Facebook phone is to exploit the awesome power of “default.”
“Default” isn’t a particularly sexy concept in an era supposedly defined by infinite digital choice and customization. Nevertheless, for many people, the (default) Web browser already installed on a new laptop and the (default) home page it goes to every time it’s opened proved just fine. For such users, it’s sort of the equivalent of going to the nearest grocery store: good enough. If certain physical world businesses depend on location, location, location, a powerful strategy in the digital world is often default, default, default.
A phone that defaults to the latest from Facebook’s News Feed “out of the box,” as they say, wouldn’t appeal to me personally, because I’m not a particularly heavy Facebook user. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a substantial number of people would have no problem with that scenario at all. One study reportedly concluded that Facebook users who access the social network through mobile devices check in there about 14 times a day. If that’s anywhere close to true, then there are plenty of people who already think of that object they’re toting around as their “Facebook phone”—which they can also use to play games or get directions from time to time.
And what’s good enough for them is potentially great for Facebook in its quest to soak up as much user time and data as possible. So the rumored Facebook Phone may not be an actual Facebook Phone, but for the social network’s business purposes, what’s not to like?
By Rob Walker