Facebook has announced a lock screen and home screen replacement for Android. Basically, it shows content from Facebook on your home- and lock screens.
A sentiment I’ve heard from many technology journalists is that Facebook Home is too intrusive. I think they’re making the mistake of extrapolating from their own experiences and needs. When technology journalists think of Facebook Home, they think «I’m following 400 people on Twitter and have 5000 followers who send me messages; I need more ways to curb the flood of incoming data, not more ways of letting it through!»
Most people, however, aren’t technology journalists.
While the average Facebook user has 190 friends, this number is heavily skewed by a small number of people who have extremely large friend lists. The median Facebook user only has around 100 friends, not all of which are active Facebook users. This is at the lower end of the proposed values for Dunbar’s number. For most Facebook users, it should easily be possible to keep up with these hundred people without feeling overwhelmed. Indeed, these people might want to have better (that is, more intrusive) ways of keeping up with their friends.
So how does Google feel about Facebook Home?
At the least, I expect an increased emphasis from Google on the virtues of «stock» Android, and an increased push to make that consistent for consumers.
I think it’s important to note that Facebook Home is nothing new. Android manufacturers have shipped their phones with custom lock screens and launchers for years. You’re hard-pressed to find a non-Google-branded Android phone that ships with Android’s default launcher. Facebook Home won’t replace Google’s launcher. It will replace HTC’s launcher (and Samsung’s launcher, and LG’s launcher).
But wouldn’t Google prefer «stock Android»? Well, the ability to replace the home screen is a built-in, fully supported Android feature. Google intentionally implemented it. This feature is, in fact, part of «stock Android».
Android’s home screen is largely irrelevant to how Google makes money with Android. Google cares very much if you ship an Android phone with a different default search provider, with a non-Google default browser, without Google Play, or without Google Now. But replacing the home screen? Probably not a big deal.
In other words: the fact that Google makes no money from the Kindle Fire has nothing to do with the Fire’s home screen.
It could even be argued that the HTC First (at least the way it exists at the moment) is an improvement over other HTC or Samsung Android phones. The HTC First ships with an unaltered version of Android; it just has Facebook Home installed on top of it. This is different from how Android phones are usually skinned, where the custom launcher replaces the stock Android launcher.
If Google truly cared about the home screen, they might well see Facebook Home as preferable to the status quo.
Facebook Home can only reside on Android because only Google was daft enough to allow it.
Given that Android’s source is open, the alternative to having a supported, reversible way of replacing the home screen would have been to let phone manufacturers replace it in an unsupported, non-reversible way. I think Google picked well.
I have no idea whether Facebook Home will be a success. If Facebook doesn’t find enough hardware partners to ship phones with Home preinstalled, it probably won’t be. But I don’t think it will fail because Facebook users don’t want it, and I don’t think it will fail because Google will sabotage it.
It’d be one thing if Facebook somehow convinced Apple to build Home into iOS. But to take over as the social layer of Android — something Google has failed to do for its own struggling Google+ product, probably because of internal conflicts — is truly sticking it to Google, regardless of whether phones infected with Home will still use Google’s apps under all of those disembodied heads.
To be clear, I agree that — everything else equal — Google would rather see phones ship with Android’s default lock screen and home screen. But they already don’t, and so far, Google hasn’t acted as if they saw this as a major issue.
Think of it like this: do you suppose Google preferred if you bought an HTC First, or an iPhone?
Any phone sold that runs Android with Google’s services is a win for Google. Anything that makes Android more competitive, anything that makes people buy an Android instead of an iPhone, should be something Google is okay with.