Next week, Facebook is going to show us its “new home on Android“. What does that mean? We’re not sure — we could be days away from The Facebook Phone, or just a lovely new life-consuming app. But here are our best bets for what Zuck has up his Androidy sleeves.
If we take off our cool backwards baseball caps and put on our gadget-sleuthing deerstalkers, we can discern a decent amount from the invite itself:
Come see our new home on Android.
Facebook already has a home of sorts on Android in the form of its main app. But a new version of that wouldn’t warrant hauling in the press (at least, we hope not), so next week’s announcement is bigger than that.
So what’s bigger than an app, but still Android related? Through a mix of hope, deduction and rumour-rummaging, the first thing that springs to mind is a full-fledged Facebook Phone that runs on a customised version of Android.
The Facebook Phone At Last?
It’s not hard to imagine what this would look like: Facebook would do for its social network what Amazon did with the Kindle Fire, taking raw, uncut Android and repurposing it into something unique through a rumoured hardware partnership with HTC. It’d still be familiar to anyone who’s used Android, and it’d still run all the usual apps, but Facebook features would be pervasive. Zuckerberg’s squad provides the software, developed in-house to be like no other version of Android, and HTC pairs a nice handset (HTC One?) to go along.
From there, it's just a matter of peppering Facebook's existing offerings throughout every part of the platform .
Take a photo? Sharing to Facebook, whether on your timeline or through a Facebook IM, would be the default option.
Have a thought? A shortcut to update your Facebook status will be front and centre.
Want a quick glance at the news? Your news feed would probably be the dominant stream, whether on the phone's lock screen or home menu, putting an emphasis on social minutiae. [clear]
Want to actually talk on your phone?(!) Here's where it gets interesting! Facebook has already rolled out its voice messaging features and shown a real interest in VoIP -- so it's a safe bet that a Facebook Android Phone would integrate voice-over-data, whether in the form of Nextel chirp-style messages or actual two-way conversations. If this is wound tightly enough into the OS, it could be a boon for all of us: an easy voice connection to all of the people we're already friends with. No need to remember (or even enter) phone numbers ever again.
This is an advantage Facebook has in more spots than voice: between Poke, Instagram, Camera, Messenger, and the main social app, the company has already built out a decent number of the features you'd need for a smartphone. Some of these have been iOS initiatives, sure, but there's no reason FB couldn't do the same for Android. This wouldn't just be a matter of pre-installing a bunch of Facebook gunk on an otherwise unremarkable HTC handset; it'd be about replacing the core of an Android phone with Facebook nougat, so that most of the things you do on a daily basis involve The Book in some way. Depending on who you are, that's either a convenient or horrifying prospect.
In the same way the Kindle Fire nudges you gently towards buying with every tap and swipe, a Facebook phone would urge you to share and share and share again, preferably with geolocational goodness that advertisers will eat up.
Don't Screw It Up Again
You might remember that there already was a Facebook phone back in 2011 -- sort of. The HTC Sense went with the "let's just cram some Facebook stuff into this phone we found" approach, and it showed. Other than the clumsily bundled software, which felt tacked on instead of baked in, the handset's only claims to Facebookiness was a dedicated Facebook button used for sharing. That's a nice gimmick -- sort of -- but it only made the sloppy glue-job between Android and Facebook software more glaring. The button was a shortcut in both function and effort, and the phone itself was a dud.
Facebook probably won't make this mistake twice. An HTC FB device will be uniquely Facebook's.
But there are other potential roadblocks to a full-fledged Facebook phone. Facebook doesn't have its own browser (important for a phone!), and has said that a mobile version of Graph Search is still a ways down the software path. Then again, Zuck also said a Facebook Phone "wouldn't make sense," so who knows.
Or Maybe It's Just a Big, Fancy App
Another reading of "Home on Android" is just... the home screen. Not a new version of Android, not a special phone with a big blue FB logo on the back -- just a new download for the Android handsets already out there.
But it could still be big.
A Facebook app that lives on your Android phone's homescreen and becomes your super-graphical HQ, your mobile HUD, could offer a lot of the charm of a full-blown "Facebook Phone." If Facebook doesn't make its own flavour of Android and partner with a company like HTC, it'd be free to distribute this kind of download -- and the ads that would come with it -- to anyone with a recent Android handset.
Now that news feeds have been jazzed up and multiplied, making them the main attraction of your phone from the moment you pick it up would be a tremendous boost for the company -- and for you, if you want that on your phone. Given how popular Facebook is among the mobile set, it's not a stretch to picture popping open your phone, scanning recent updates and uploads, seeing that you've got something in your inbox, and then sliding it back in your pocket. So much of what we do with our smartphones is Facebook-related anyway that just jamming a bunch of that stuff into a permanent LCD slot might make sense, and carries none of the Facebook Phone's overhead or risk.
The Bottom Line
Facebook needs to be a bigger part of phones in order to make more money, in order to keep its investors from burning down its offices. More phone action means more ad action, which means more cash. We're looking at two ways to get FB-dominated via mobile: a Facebook Phone with a Facebook version of Android, or an app that executes something of a homescreen takeover, available for all phones.
Or, god, maybe it will be something else. Maybe Zuck just called this meeting to poke every tech writer in the country physically, in person, with a fleshy index finger and a sigh.
No matter what, we'll bring you the Big Phone News as soon as it happens on April 4.