Rumors have always been kicking around regarding Facebook’s desires to enter the Smartphone market. Those rumors died for a while after their first uneventful partnership with HTC which birthed the HTC ChaCha (or HTC Status here in the US).
The ChaCha was an entry-level Android phone that’s notable for two things: its odd screen resolution/aspect ratio, and the “Facebook button,” which was nothing more than a hardware shortcut that would launch Facebook’s sharing prompt when pressed. After the ChaCha was released, the social media conglomerate went back to the proverbial drawing board and the idea of a Facebook phone seemingly went into hibernation.
Today, Facebook released their new iteration on the “Facebook Phone” concept. But instead of releasing a physical device, Facebook is banking on being able to piggyback on a pre-existing Android user base with its release of Facebook Home, essentially a launcher/software overlay that turns your homescreen into a full-screen friend feed. That’s right – if you’ve always wanted to see the inane thoughts of people that you’ve been forced to be “friends” with on Facebook because of societal pressures take up all your phone’s screen real estate, then you are in luck.
Out of pure, morbid curosity, I installed Facebook Home on a spare Android phone that I had lying around (what, you don’t have five hanging out in your nightstand?). Turns out Facebook only whitelisted a scant amount of devices to be able to use the app – including their flagship phone, the HTC First. After some sideloading hoops, I was able to install Facebook Home as well as the updated Facebook client on my obscure little smartphone.
After installing the two requisite pieces of the app and plugging in my Facebook credentials, I was whisked away to my new home screen. The Cover Feed simply takes your existing News Feed m Facebook and displays it in a somewhat visually-pleasing slideshow that moves on to the next story every few seconds. My first impression of the feed validated what I thought when I saw the first teaser videos of the interface. There’s no way my feed will look that good. Ironically, the prevalence of cheap Android phones with sub-par cameras is what destroys Facebook’s illusion. It’s garbage in, garbage out; and unless you only follow people that exclusively post professional photography, all you’ll be looking at are full-screen versions of your friends’ low-resolution photos, regurgitated memes from 9gag, and whatever embarrassing cover photos they decide to put up (see: Borge).
When you’re looking at a well-formatted post though, the interface is beautiful. Your friends’ posts are labeled in stark, white fonts while the associated image (the software will either pull an image from the post if it exists, or simply grab your friend’s cover photo if it doesn’t) slowly zooms by with a faux-Ken Burns effect. It’s a cool-looking alternative to the News Feed, but then again Flipboard kinda does the same thing already. But then again, what’s the point when 90% of what your friends post is drivel that you scroll past by anyway? My, what a charmer I am.
Playing around with the interface even more, there’s a little divot with your cover picture that represents the “bobble” you use to interface with and reach Facebook Home’s different areas: Messenger, which is simply a shortcut for the fully-integrated Facebook Messenger (more on that later); Apps, which launches a simple app drawer with a grid-based list of all your apps; and a “Back” button which — from what I understand — accesses the last app that you used before heading back to the home screen. I can see how this simple interface can appeal to smartphone novices; but as a power user I found the lack of shortcuts confusing. One more complaint: it’s far too easy for your fingers to wander and accidentally “like” someone’s post — it’s as if the UI was intentionally designed that way. Sneaky.
Although the actual Facebook Home launcher is fairly underwhelming, it’s almost completely redeemed by Facebook’s genius answer to smartphone users having to juggle multiple chat conversations while actually trying to do something productive. They’re calling this solution “chat heads,” and at the core it’s such a simple idea.
If you’re a social butterfly like me, you’re probably consistently struggling with having to switch apps every time someone texts or tries to chat with you. Thanks to the Android operating system’s flexibility and Facebook’s tight integration with the launcher, Chat Heads let you have an overlay of up to four conversations appearing on top of any app that you’re running. It’s great because I can text or instant message someone while reading an article or watching a video, for example. Instead of having to stop what you’re doing to answer a message, you click on the little Chat Head and it lays the current conversation over whatever you’re doing. One major problem I’ve had with it is that I couldn’t get it to work with group Facebook chats; sadly our long-running Facebook thread with the rest of the 30lives staff sends over a regular Android system notification instead of a Chat Head. Pretty annoying.
Still, I don’t see why Facebook Home even exists. Much like PlayStation Home, it’s an entirely forgettable waste of assets that nobody really asked for; and something that definitely sounded better on paper than in execution. Chat Heads are a genius idea, but couldn’t they have done that without the Home overlay? Not to sound like a complete jerk, but there’s nothing compelling about my Facebook feed that would make me like staring at it after unlocking my phone.