Facebook Home isn't a Facebook Phone, nor is it really "a bunch of apps," or a new operating system. It's an admission: Facebook means a lot to me, and is an interesting view of my life -- and I want to look at it all the time, everywhere I go. If that sounds like you, Home is where your heart should be. If not, your phone will become something you hate.
Facebook Home doesn't do much because it's designed to not do very much. When you tap most Android phones to life, you trigger the information equivalent of someone shouting directly into your face, replete with spit flecks. Depending on your setup, you'll see a clock, clouds, weather, emails, news, IMs -- a frothing info stew. And that's the point! Android lets you jam as much as you want into it.
Facebook says: no more. Stop. It's time for everyone to chill the hell out. Put your widgets away, stop spreading graphics and boxes and whatever the hell across your screens. You're making your phone and your life more complicated than they need to be. Don't worry about customising a topography of at-a-glance inboxes and icons. Let Facebook take care of everything.
At least that's the pitch.
Design & Using It
Facebook Home is mostly large pictures with large text sprayed over them. What Facebook purports to be the brightest, shining, most valuable (and relevant!) nuggets from the News Feed are plucked, polished, and smelted into what's called the Coverfeed: a graphical transposition of the normal info digest.
Turn on your phone. Maybe the first thing you see is three girls in costumes -- oh, Margaret changed her cover photo to a recent party. Swipe to the right. Hey, it's Boo the Dog with a friendly message, who now appears on my phone because I follow his Facebook page. He looks furry and svelte as ever. Swipe. Boring. Swipe again. Doug says he had a good weekend. Good update, Doug. Stephanie was at a bar -- here's the photo to prove it. Swipe, swipe. A link to an interesting-sounding article from a smart friend.
And that's where Coverfeed stops working mostly as a slideshow screensaver. Click that link, and Chrome pops open, like on any other Android phone.
Tap the comments icon to leave some pithy insight.
Double tap your friend's photo of an attic to like it. Swipe!
It's a diet version of Facebook, sparse in that it's just one photo and a string of words at a time. But it still hits you as tangy and effervescent, with the same Let's make everything big and bright ethos that's been driving FB since Timeline beamed down. You can still participate, though, instead of merely witness. Facebook is an oily, glistening, fragrant spread of tall cakes and red meats, from one end of the table to another. Facebook Home is visual tapas. Or something, I have a stomach ache.
There's more than just consuming, because just looking at Facebook news would make Facebook Home very limited and not something you'd ever want to swallow your phone's screen. You can message people with it, which is far more important than ever talking to them, as we've learned by now. There's more to do with Home, and your profile picture -- yeah, your own pretty face -- acts as kind of control joystick.
Swipe your little portrait to the left and the messaging menu pops up. Select a contact -- Google, Facebook, or whatever else you've imported -- and fire off a message. FB, IM, and SMS are treated as exact equals, which is how it should be, because who cares about nerdy distinctions between textual protocols? Texting is texting is texting! Once a conversation starts, a "chat head" -- what Facebook is strangely and catchily calling it -- will remain on your screen for each interlocutor. It's a small portrait of your friend's face that will remain overlaid against any app on your phone, a shortcut that'll bring you back to your conversation and can be positioned wherever you'd like on the periphery. It sounds distracting, but it's not. You can have a whole stack of 'em at once, and it's weird and lovely.
There are other convenient UI touches as well. You can swipe your face to the right and the last app you were using -- say, the full Facebook app, or Chrome -- will re-open. Or, if you swipe straight up, you'll pop open a menu of favourite Android apps. Staples like Instagram and Chrome come standard, but you can add anything you'd like.
Facebook Home makes your phone not feel like your old phone anymore, for free. When was the last time you got a new experience for free, short of virginity loss or petting a dog? It's rejuvenating and crazily experimental, and genuinely cleansing. It's nice to exfoliate all the bulk app crap you don't really need, but accumulate because it's free. Facebook Home is simple -- maybe stupid simple -- and that's a virtue for sure.
If you're not some sort of libertarian anti-Facebook partisan, you'll enjoy the pretty-faced straightforwardness of Home. What do you really do with your smartphone? Send texts, check email, browse the web, and check social updates. Odds are that you're among the billion human beings who get these social updates from Facebook -- whose existence has been chronicled and will continue to be by the social network for years and years. It feels oddly natural to have FB take control of your screen, to use it as jumping-off point. It makes your phone feel more familiar. And as much as this is, yes, about Facebook taking control away from Google and HTC and everyone else involved in phones, it makes your phone feel friendlier to you. It's nice to have the first thing you see when you flip it on be the face of someone you know, even if it's someone you hate. Home humanizes the brick.
Above all, Home will make you realise how extraneous most of your current smartphone is. Too much cargo. You really only need a few essentials, and hey, Facebook is here to offer a solution in a way that might eventually raise its stock price!
If you don't use Facebook -- or if you actively dislike it -- I'm not sure why you're reading to this point, but it's safe to say you won't enjoy Home. This is for the Facebook devout.
If you are one of these Zuckerbergian pilgrims, you might be frustrated with the occasional UI jitters and lags, which are inexcusable even given the mediocrity of the HTC First hardware. Perhaps a Note II will perform better, or Facebook will iron out animations in future monthly releases of Home. For now, every time something stutters, you'll briefly hate Home.
You'll also be frustrated with fragmented contacts. It's hard to appreciate the holy union of SMS and IMing when you have three different "Laura D" in your contacts list, or five different versions of "Dad." There should only be one dad, unless you have two dads, which is totally cool, but Facebook Home hasn't figured out how to merge its collection of the people you know with Google's in a way that isn't messy. There will be duplicates. Facebook's Adam Mosseri, the man who more or less created Home, knows it's a problem. He says they're trying to make it better. I believe Adam.
And one last point, that you can set aside for the moment but which will rear its head at some point: Home will likely feature ads someday. Ads with big, beautiful, geolocated relevance to your interests, sure. But ads just the same.
Should I Buy It?
If by buy you mean buy the HTC First, which is pre-loaded with Home, no, because Home is a free download and the HTC First is a junker.
But if you have a compatible Android phone -- as of April 12, that means the First, the HTC One X, HTC One X+, HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S III, Note II, and Galaxy S4 -- give it a poke. At the very least, it'll knock some of the dust out of our brains, so used to the same plain screens, over and over and forever.