Facebook put its engineers in 2010 to work designing a version of Facebook that could operate on any smartphone. In effect, he was betting that as different operating systems jostled for control of mobile devices, standalone apps would go away and soon we would surf websites on our phones, just as we do on PCs.
As it turned out, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS quickly became the dominant mobile operating systems, and Facebook’s applications, which were built with its CEO’s web-centric worldview in mind, didn’t work well on either platform. They were buggy and slow, crashing often. Facebook should have built separate apps for iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, Nokia devices, and, yes, even Microsoft phones.
Around the world consumers were abandoning laptops for mobile devices, busying themselves with a dizzying array of downloaded apps designed specifically for small touchscreens and people on the go. (Have you ever seen anyone play Angry Birds on a desktop?) Facebook, meanwhile, had only one engineer dedicated to the iPhone; most of its mobile team was coding for mobile web browsers.
Facebook Home was introduced as a new way to provide its customers with a rich Facebook experience on mobile phones. As part of its newfound zeal for apps, the company had already successfully revamped its software for the iPhone and Android-powered devices. Facebook Home is far more ambitious; its software basically coopts certain Android devices so that Facebook’s signature elements — status updates, newsfeeds, chat — are the first things users see on the screen, even before they unlock their devices. Zuckerberg is essentially betting that really great coding will trump Facebook’s need to develop its own device or mobile platform.
The risks are huge. Facebook Home makes Zuckerberg dependent on Android, which is owned by one of Facebook’s biggest rivals, Google. He simultaneously risks alienating Apple, another key partner, by focusing resources on the iPhone maker’s major competitor. It also prevents him from reaping the potential benefits (mostly in quality and user experience) that could come from developing and controlling his own operating system. But if consumers and advertisers embrace the product, Zuckerberg will have a chance to prove that he knows how to reinvent the mobile experience — and in the process he will reinvent Facebook as we know it.
Given Facebook’s engineering prowess it is possible that Home or other Home-like software could expand to the point where the technology totally consumes a device so that it isn’t even recognizable as a Google-powered phone — all thanks to Google’s open-source largesse. Think of Facebook here as potentially like a strangler fig, a type of epiphyte that gloms onto another plant or tree, growing around and over it, competing with its host for nutrients. (Google, which wasn’t involved in the development of Facebook Home, declined to comment on the product, though Zuckerberg confirms that the search giant saw it prior to launch.)