Essays on Technology and Culture

Some Thoughts on Facebook Home and The History of the Smartphone

There’s a lot of hemming and hawing in the tech sphere about Facebook’s new Home for Android, and what this means for Google, and for Microsoft, and for Apple. If you’re Google, it’s Facebook sticking it to your “open” platform and your struggling social network. If you’re Microsoft, it’s Facebook taking your cool idea and making it not suck. If you’re Apple, well, you’re Apple and whether that’s a bad thing or not depends on who you ask.

I’m not seeing a lot of talk about what Facebook is actually doing to how we use our phones, except in terms of advertising, which is a discussion worth having, just not here. Maybe it’s because Facebook is refining what Microsoft thought it had nailed with Windows Phone 7, that of showing a user immediate, context sensitive information on the home screen with live, updating UI elements, and doing information at a glance. The screenshots of Facebook Home in action sure look nice. I’ve not used it, and nor would I because I am neither buying an el-cheapo HTC Android phone, or letting Facebook control my device. [1]

The dominant paradigm of the smartphone is still heavily influenced by two things, and the iPhone isn’t one of them. The first is the business world. Smartphones sprang from the convergence of phones, pagers, and e-mail. The earliest devices called smartphones were marketed at the business person on the go, the sort of person who needed to not only get an email anywhere in the world, but reply to that email ASAP, and maybe get on the web to find the information needed to do that. The smartphone was a tool to get business work done first and foremost.

The second idea is that of the smartphone as a general-purpose computing device, something that Microsoft helped push by designing Windows CE to look like Windows 95. Things that work in similar ways should be able to do similar things, and so, perhaps deliberately, perhaps not, Microsoft established the idea that these handheld gizmos could be more than just a cell phone that does email. [2] You could, if you wanted, calculate a spreadsheet, write a memo, or view a PowerPoint presentation, that is if you enjoy the taste of your own blood. The smartphone was just another kind of computer, albeit a terrible one that could make phone calls.

Whoever decided to market the Sidekick to ordinary users (well, teenagers) was clearly some sort of mad genius. The same fundamental technologies that allowed the businessman in the field to get an urgent email were spun to allow the gossipy teenager to chat with all of their gossipy teenager friends. [3] It found a need where nobody had thought a need existed, and put instantaneous, non-voice communication in the hands and pockets of normal people. Still, as much as people loved the ability to text chat on their Sidekicks, and on the Blackberries that replaced them, Apple’s refining of the smartphone as computer—post-App Store—that defined the space. Who the hell just wants a phone to chat with people? I’ve gotta fling bird at pigs!

This brings us back around to Facebook Home, which takes a position that’s more along the lines of the Sidekick. Sure, you can play Angry Birds on your phone that runs Facebook Home, but you’ll really be using it to Facebook Message all your Facebook Friends, invite them to Facebook Events, update your Facebook Status, and Check In to Facebook Places. The UI of Facebook Home is designed to make these your phone’s primary functions, and all that general purpose computing stuff becomes secondary. Besides, wouldn’t you rather use Facebook Apps than Android apps? Where Facebook Home triumphs over Windows Phone 7 is that Facebook went all the way with the smartphone as social communication device, while Microsoft tried to bridge the gap between social-phone and computer-phone. What remains to be seen is whether this is what people want from their phone. Just because so many of us jumped from social-smartphones to computer-smartphones doesn’t mean a bunch of us aren’t waiting to jump back.

There are two main types of smartphone users: those who use their phone as a computer that makes calls, and those who use their phone as a phone, and maybe to check Facebook. [4] The people who use their phone as a computer won’t want Facebook Home because they want to do stuff that isn’t Facebook. It’s the latter group that’s the wildcard. I’m certain that the HTC First, with Facebook Home built-in, will quickly be snapped up by those hardcore Facebook users, and if the carrier incentives are good, be forced into the hands of clueless people who just want a phone. More than a few Android phone users will download Facebook Home and try it out of curiosity, though I don’t know if they’ll stick with it, unless they already spend all their non-calling smartphone time on Facebook. Until we know for sure, the only question left to ask is: how hard is it to uninstall Facebook Home?

  1. The amount of time I spend on Facebook daily is far too much.  ↩

  2. I am well aware that the Palm Pilot and its ilk could run general purpose software, but they didn’t exactly go out of their way to imply it was a computer.  ↩

  3. All teenagers are gossipy.  ↩

  4. A common theory about how Android phones continue to outsell iPhones, while iPhones dominate in web traffic, is that carriers push cheap Android smartphones on customers better served by dumbphones, and so the customer never bothers using the device as a smartphone.  ↩