How Facebook for Android is a trojan horse for Facebook's larger ambitions.
You've got to wonder whether this strategy is written on the board somewhere prominently in Facebook's offices: do something extreme, make people uncomfortable, and then when it's been soundly rejected, take a step back and find a way to make it happen without anyone noticing. Since the days of Beacon Facebook has done this time and time again. Facebook introduces a major change that take invasion of privacy, lock-in and control to a whole new level, cause a crazy uproar. Then, when the uproar has subsided and nobody is paying attention anymore, Facebook finds a new, quieter way to accomplish the very same thing. Even Facebook's stock price has taken that path, finally flirting with profitability after a tumultuous IPO.
The latest culprit of this bait and switch strategy? Facebook Home, Facebook's attempt to own our mobile operating system.
Facebook Home's launch may have been the company's biggest failure yet. It was announced with great fanfare, with commercial partners, and with lofty claims about this not only being the greatest version of Facebook ever-- but a whole new way of experiencing mobile. The problem was, though, Facebook Home took mobile lock-in to a whole new level by suppressing much of what people do on their phones a layer below Facebook's own features. It also showed a complete misunderstanding of the motivations of many Android users. The result was a minimal usage and HTC's Facebook Home phone being discounted to 99 cents within a month of going on sale.
But as we should know by now Facebook never gives up. While almost no one is using Facebook Home, a tens of millions of people are using Facebook for Android. And Facebook Android app, it turns out, is the perfect back door to introduce Facebook Home features away from the critical public eye. First came Chat Heads, Facebook Home's clever and fun messaging platform. Then came Cover Feed, Facebook Home's very attractive newsfeed screensaver. Both features were introduced as opt-in options, and I've activated each as soon as they were available (note: as a Facebook for Android Beta tester, I sometimes receive updates earlier than the general public).
As it turns out, Facebook Home's best features are pretty great. Chat Heads makes messaging much more accessible than ever before by elevating text messages above the Android application layer so you can send messages without having to leave what you're doing. And Cover Feed makes turning on your phone a few hundred times a day much more interesting and enjoyable by introducing new photos and status updates from your friends in beautiful full bleed panning display that you can 'like' or comment on immediately, every time the lock screen appears. My Facebook usage had waned considerably over the years, but since turning on Cover Feed I've browsed and interacted with Facebook at exponentially greater volumes.
One day with Cover Feed and you can see why Facebook wants this so badly.
Facebook turning its regular Android app into a trojan horse for Facebook Home features isn't going to solve all of its problems. Cover Feed is great, and new features seem to be getting added regularly (just this week Facebook added support for audio controls in the lock-screen). My biggest critique with Facebook Home when it first launched was its blatant disregard for 3rd party applications, which it needs to play nicely with if it wants to own more real estate on the phone. I'm loving Cover Feed, but I'll be more likely to stick with it if I can integrate photo streams from other applications as well (first-up, how about Instagram support, which at the very least is part of Facebook's own family?). And Facebook is still quietly working on Facebook Home, hoping to get it to a place where Android users consider it a compelling alternative to the stock operating system.
It's clear to me, though, whatever happens-- one way or another, we'll all be using a version of Facebook Home sooner or later, whether we realize it, like it, or not.