Facebook Home is a clever product that is more than an app, but less than a full-fledged OS. Do its benefits outweigh the privacy concerns? R Krishna finds out.
For over a year now, there has been speculation about a mysterious Facebook phone. Starting Friday the phone is available to users.
Except it isn’t really a phone. Facebook Home, which can be downloaded from the Google Play Store, is a launcher for phones running on Android, though only six phones are supported at the moment. It is, as Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Mossberg puts it, “the boldest attempt by any non-hardware company to alter a phone’s native user interface.”
Facebook Home is a skin on top of an Android phone. Press the ‘Unlock’ button, and a Facebook screen greets you. Updates from your friends, or pictures they’ve posted appear on the screen. You can even share and comment on the posts straight out of this lock screen. As some have pointed out, it’s a good way to pass some time.
Inside, the screen from where you launch apps has been modified. Three options sit on top of every screen from where you can update your status, upload a photo or check in to a place. Every time you get a Facebook message or SMS, a preview pops up on the screen — Facebook calls these Chat Heads. Unlike standard message notifications that disappear from screen, Chat Heads will stay there until you swipe them down.
From the features it is clear that Home wants users to engage with Facebook more frequently on the go. “I think this was long time coming. In India itself Facebook has set itself a target to acquire 400 million users by 2016. Going mobile is going to be important to the company,” says Rajiv Dhingra of Mumbai-based social media agency, WatConsult.
Though Facebook has also unveiled the HTC First, a phone that comes preloaded with Home, and bears the social network’s logo on its back, Dhingra doesn’t think Facebook wants to get into the hardware side of things. “It wouldn’t make sense. Instead of competing with cell phone manufacturers, they will try and strike partnerships with as many of them as possible,” says Dhingra.
Those partnerships, however, will depend on how many users actually find value in Facebook Home. While a majority of reviewers have given their thumbs up to Home, the opinion seems divided amongst users. “I wouldn’t download it on my phone,” says Christopher Isaac, a Hyderabad-based media professional, “Facebook is always going to be running, and at some point it is going to get annoying. Plus, it messes up Android. You will have to swipe multiple times to make a phone call.”
Another concern is that of privacy. Om Malik writes that, “Facebook Home should put privacy advocates on alert, for this application erodes any idea of privacy. If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action.”
Malik’s concern stems from the fact that launchers like Home have a greater access to the phone’s hardware than apps, allowing Facebook to build a user’s profile using not just what she does on Facebook, but also location data, and call and message logs. All this, of course, will help Facebook serve targetted ads to users.
While privacy advocates are right to voice concern, users may be less discerning. As Dhingra puts it, “As long as there is value in it, people will use Home irrespective of privacy issues.”