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Facebook introduces Facebook Home

By Paul O’Reilly

Facebook wants to take over your phone. Instead of unveiling a stand-alone Facebook-branded device, which is what many pundits were expecting, CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday unveiled Facebook Home, a super app which effectively bumps everything else off your home screen and turns your Android phone into a mobile Facebook portal.

Facebook Home consists of three distinct elements. As soon as you turn on your phone, you will see Facebook Home’s Cover Feed, which is essentially your Facebook News Feed optimized for an Android smartphone. Photos, status updates, videos and links will all be there as soon as you hit the home button, with the emphasis on images that will fill your color-rich HD screen.

Facebook Home also takes over your Notifications feature, turning it into a constant stream of comments, Likes, check-ins, invitations and messages, just like you get now via e-mail, text, or when you log into your Facebook page.

The second element is the curiously-named Chat Heads, which is a one-stop destination for all your non-voice conversations, including texts and Facebook messages. The beauty of Chat Heads is that it’s always running in the background, which means you can jump in and out of chats even when you’re doing other things like watching a video or surfing the Web.

All messages are automatically accompanied by a head-shot of the message sender, so you don’t get confused (OK – that’s where they got the name from!), and you can drag the chat heads with you wherever you go.

The final element of Facebook Home is App Launcher, which is a reluctant admission by Facebook that you might want to do something else with your phone other than look at status updates all day. App Launcher allows you to reach all the other apps that reside on your phone. You can add app essentials, organize apps by screens, and do all the other things that you are used to doing when you’re not logged onto Facebook.

Although Mr. Zuckerberg also announced the HTC First, an Android smartphone customized for Facebook Home that will be available on April 12, he said that Facebook has no current plans to get any deeper into the hardware business. “A great phone might sell 10 or 20 million units at best, but our community has over 1 billion people. Even if we built a really good phone, we'd only be serving 1 percent” of Facebook users, said Zuckerberg.

The Facebook Home app will also be available for the HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II. However, don’t expect to see Facebook Home on iPhones anytime soon. Unlike Google, Apple doesn’t allow apps that reconfigure the home screen or launch other apps.

It’s also unclear how Google itself will react. Although Google owns Android, it is an open platform and device manufacturers and developers are given great latitude in how they integrate and configure the basic software. But Facebook Home effectively subjugates many of Google’s own apps, including Google search and the Google+ social network. It also paves the way for Facebook to add additional apps to its Facebook Home platform, which one day could include maps, music, and maybe even a Facebook store.

While falling short of the expected phone, Facebook Home is another major move in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of mobile users. It will be fascinating to see whether Facebook Home takes off, and what counter moves Google, Apple and the other major players will make.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

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