New York — Facebook unveiled a downloadable app that will replace the home and lock screen of Android smartphones and tablets, bring Facebook content to the front of the screen, and deliver a Facebook-centric way of interacting with the phone’s other apps and features.
The company also unveiled a Facebook Home program that will enable smartphone makers to optimize their phones for the free app. The first Facebook-optimized phone will be HTC’s First, available April 12 with preloaded Home app at $99 on the AT&T network. It will also be the first phone preloaded with Instagram.
Other companies participating in the Home program are Samsung, Sony, Huawei, Lenovo, ZTE and Alcatel.
The Home app, which deeply integrates with the existing Android OS, will be available for download to smartphones on April 12 through Google Play. The company hopes to have a tablet version of the app in several months.
The first devices compatible with the downloadable app are the HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II. The Home app will also work on the forthcoming HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 and on more devices in the coming months, Facebook said. Updates to allow compatibility with additional phones and enable new features will be available monthly, the company added.
The user interface, said Facebook chairman and founder Mark Zuckerberg, is “designed around people first,” whereas other smartphones are designed around apps first.
Facebook Home replaces the home and lock screen with a Cover Feed display, which streams photos and updates from a user’s Facebook newsfeed. Users can swipe through to see more photos and updates, double tap to “like” a post, and post comments from the Cover Feed display.
Notifications from apps and friends, such as missed calls, calendar reminders and messages, also appear right on the homescreen. User can open a notification with a double tap on the homescreen, then swipe it away. A feature called Chat Heads lets users view messaging notifications from whatever app happens to be running. Chat Heads displays a small picture of the sender’s face as well as a preview of the message.
Also from the Cover Feed display, users can press an icon to access all other phone apps.
HTC First will be available in four colors: black, white, red and pale blue. The 4G LTE phone runs Android 4.1 and features a 4.3-inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor with dual-core 1.7GHz CPU, and 3G/4G world and multimode LTE operation.
Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at Ovum, said the Facebook launch will stimulate Facebook usage on mobile devices and drive up the company’s advertising revenues. “The Android launcher approach allows it to target a huge installed base of hundreds of millions of Android users, which will be a large chunk of Facebook's total user base of more than a billion people,” he said.
“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.” The software “will allow Facebook to track more of a user's behavior on device and present more opportunities to serve up advertising, which is Facebook's main business model.”
However, he noted “users don't want more advertising or tracking, and Facebook wants to do more of both.”
For carriers, the development is risky because “this puts Facebook's communication services front and center on the device and makes them easier to use and more integrated with the core experience on the device.” As a result, he said, the Home app “should accelerate the shift from carrier services to over-the-top services. It should be a big boost to Facebook Messenger and the associated voice and video services.”