Weaker app presence for brands, and stronger data for Facebook. Those are two key reactions to Facebook's home screen replacer "Facebook Home," which was ceremoniously unveiled today with launch partners HTC and AT&T at a press conference at the digital giant's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
The new downloadable system lets Android users customize their home screens with multiple Flipbook-like capabilities—dubbed "cover feeds" by Facebook. It also allows people to more easily digitally chat with friends while performing other tasks on a phone such as reading online articles. The avatar-looking features are called "chat heads," which accompany notifications on the home screen when someone is pinging you to chat.
The HTC First will be the first phone to come preloaded with Facebook Home. The device will be available through AT&T for $100 starting on April 12, while other Android-employing carriers like Samsung and Lenovo are expected to eventually release phones with Facebook Home. The new super app treatment will be available for tablets in several months, per the company.
Facebook's apps such as Instagram, Camera and Messenger will be baked into the Android phones. Third-party apps from the likes of the Associated Press, Seamless, Twitter, Google Maps, etc., will be accessible—but now tucked away and requiring a couple of swipes to access. It creates less clutter for the phone owner, but less presence for those competitive third-party apps.
What Facebook Home means to advertising on mobile app networks remains to be seen. And who knows if it will affect brands' willingness to invest in proprietary apps, now that they will no longer have much of a shot at being front and center on some Android phones. This year, per eMarketer, more than 64.3 million people in the U.S.—or 46 percent of smartphone users—will use Android phones.
"Consumers may not get all their apps on their phones—and they may not even work on all phones—which can ultimately lead to a bad experience," said John Haro, chief technology officer at Vibes.
Added George Bell, CEO at mobile ad server Jumptap: "This launch not only speaks to [Facebook's] future direction, but adds both complexity and opportunity to the mobile advertising landscape."
While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, HTC head Peter Chou and AT&T chief Ralph de la Vega all spoke at the press conference, not a word was uttered about advertising. "We want to build the best experience on every phone," Zuckerberg said.
Agencies weighed in yesterday on how Facebook's home screen data would likely improve its ad-targeting prowess. And after today's announcement, players are more confident that huge implications are on the horizon. Robin Grant, global managing director of We Are Social, said cover feeds "could offer an opportunity for News Feed advertising at a premium over Facebook's existing offering."
Additionally, he said that "Facebook Home could be the holy grail of mobile advertising. Aside from mobile operators, no other company is able to keep track of a consumer’s location at all times—which, privacy settings permitting, Facebook could now do with Home. And the new in-build chat heads and notifications features provide a potential mechanism to allow location-based ads to appear in a relatively unobtrusive way—something mobile operators [can't offer]. If Facebook can use this to deliver location relevant and timely commercial messages to consumers, it will effectively give Facebook a license to print money, their long sought-after equivalent of Google's AdWords."
Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at Ovum, said that Facebook Home will allow the social firm "to track more of a user's behavior on devices and present more opportunities to serve up advertising, which is Facebook's main business model. And that presents the biggest obstacle to success for this experiment. Facebook's objectives and users are once again in conflict. Users don't want more advertising or tracking, and Facebook wants to do more of both."
Indeed, it's all about the data. Krishna Subramanian, CMO of Velti, concluded from today's press conference that the "opportunity [is] for highly targeted ads [to be] massive based on the user behavior that will be collected from the OS. By having Facebook interactions—chat, message, status updates, photos, location check-ins—that are all highly personal at the center of the operating system, marketers can know the audience more than they ever have before."