Switched On: Extreme takeover, Home edition

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|04.14.13

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Switched On: Extreme takeover, Home edition

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On Extreme takeover, home edition

Facebook's management doesn't see any dichotomy in the phrase, "Go big or go home," at least as far as it might pertain to Facebook Home. After being dogged for years with questions about whether the Land o' Likes would create its own smartphone despite consistent denials, the company explained that its own phone wouldn't give it the reach it would need for its more than 1 billion members. With the exceptions of the iPhone and the Galaxy S series, a successful handset today might sell 20 million units. That's a number that many services would dream of reaching, but it's just one-fiftieth of Facebook's user base.

And yet, Facebook Home will start out factory-installed on only one device: the HTC First, a mid-range Android device available exclusively from AT&T. Home is also available as a download from Google Play for a handful of other popular Android handsets, including the Galaxy S III.

Facebook Home hardly represents the first time a company has taken the core of Android and extended it into something to call its own.

Facebook Home hardly represents the first time a company has taken the core of Android and extended it into something to call its own. Other examples include the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook tablets, which have taken different approaches in terms of the extent to which they support generic Android apps.

The short-lived Fusion Garage Grid10 tablet also created such a distinct layer atop Android that the company dubbed it a new operating system: GridOS. However, while the company dissolved before any GridOS apps could be released, the tablet could run a wide range of Android apps downloaded from Amazon's Android app store. And beyond tablets, products such as the OUYA, GameStick and NVIDIA's Project Shield seek to create their own optimizations or distributions for Android apps.

DNP Switched On Extreme takeover, home edition

In several ways, Facebook Home is less of a customization than many of these attempts. For example, unlike with Amazon's tablets, Facebook Home preserves Google Play. This will make it easy to get, but also easy to remove. And so, Facebook Home faces a dual challenge.

Home requires users to make a choice around how their phones work.

On one hand, unlike with Facebook's native app, Home requires users to make a choice around how their phones work. Facebook is also not the first company to make an impassioned plea for putting people at the center of the phone experience. This has been a key benefit touted by Microsoft for Windows Phone, albeit one that hasn't been a compelling enough proposition to dramatically boost Windows Phone's market share yet.

Still, Facebook Home would seem to get around some of the challenges Windows Phone faces by not forcing consumers to choose between a people-centric, top-level experience and broader selections of phones and apps. And then, of course, many might not be sympathetic to the idea that a phone should put feeds of your social circles front and center. Apple, certainly, has rejected that notion. And as Switched On recently discussed, BlackBerry has put the message, not the messenger, at the center of BlackBerry 10.

The tougher proposition for Facebook Home will be getting it pre-installed on devices. Sure, HTC was willing to sideline its carefully crafted latest version of Sense -- which also includes a feed function -- to accommodate Facebook Home on the First. But HTC has been known to try lots of things in the name of being first. Some of these have been significant, such as Sprint's first WiMAX phone, Verizon's first LTE phone and anyone's first Android phone. Others, like the FLO TV personal television device, didn't pan out.

DNP Switched On Extreme takeover, home edition

Facebook remains stymied. Home is live wallpaper on steroids. In its limbo between app and operating system, it ultimately drifts closer to the former. Its ultimate significance may not be as the next version of Facebook -- an ambition that it may never have the reach to achieve -- but as a new breed of handset experience that customizes the phone's topmost layers according to the perceived needs of its users. Will the likes of ESPN, Starbucks, Harley-Davidson or Oprah be next to claim a Home-coming for their enthusiasts?

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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