Facebook reveals 'Home' software for Android phones

The software is designed to put Facebook front and center on Android smartphones

Facebook has released new software for Android phones that gives quick access to Facebook services and aims to further boost use of the social network on mobile devices.

Dubbed "Home," the software is a set of apps that users can download to their smartphones to have faster access to Facebook content and messaging with friends.

"You're going to be able to turn your Android phone into a great, simple social device," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a launch event Thursday morning at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

Downloading the apps creates a new interface for Android smartphones that puts people's friends, and the content they post, front and center on the device, rather than the screen of app icons they see today.

Home's central hub Facebook is calling "Cover Feed," which replaces both the home screen and lock screen, and is the first thing people will see when they wake up their smartphones. Activity among people's friends, such as sharing news articles or photos from family gatherings, will be displayed on this window, which users can swipe through. The user can "like" a page by double-tapping the screen.

When there is new activity directed at the user, such as when a post is made on the person's timeline, the user will receive a notification on Cover Feed, along with the other person's profile picture. Notifications can be opened by tapping on them or can be hidden with a swipe.

That functionality improves upon the little red dots that traditionally appear on the top of apps when there is activity within them, which "is not actually performing anything," Zuckerberg said.

Along with the new home screen, there is a big emphasis on messaging. The software includes a feature dubbed Chat Heads -- when a person receives a message on Facebook and they're in another application, the face of a friend pops up in a small circle at the corner of the screen, so the user can tap on it if they wish to see the message.

Zuckerberg was clear that Facebook has not built its own phone, and he said it has not had to "fork" the Android OS to make its software.

"We're not building a phone, and we're not building an operating system," he said.

Although the software changes the appearance of Android, it appears that rumors Facebook had developed its own Facebook-friendly version of Android were incorrect, since Zuckerberg described the software as a set of apps.

"You don't need to fork Android to do this, and you don't even need to modify the operating system, really," he said.

With the new software, Facebook is betting that having a dedicated suite of social services that people can download onto their Android smartphones will boost engagement among its users.

Trends in mobile suggest it might be right. Two-thirds of daily smartphone usage corresponds to pre-installed applications, according to a recent consumer survey by market research firm Analysys Mason.

People spend 20 percent of the time they are on phones looking at Facebook, Zuckerberg said.

Facebook Home will be available to download in the United States starting April 12 in Google's Play Store. The product will also be coming to tablet devices over the next several months. As to whether Home will also be coming to other smartphone operating systems, "our goal is to make this available on as many different devices as possible," Zuckerberg said, although Apple's iOS is a less open and more controlled system than Google's Android, the exec said.

In addition to the software, Facebook is also working with phone manufacturers to preload Home on certain smartphones out of the box, with the first, appropriately so, being HTC's First smartphone.

Home appears poised to provide Facebook with a whole new set of data about the activity of its users, although responses to questions on that issue were somewhat vague.

"Our analytics will be very quickly anonymized after a short period of time," which will encompass only one-half a percent of Facebook's user base, said Adam Mosseri, director of products at Facebook. The analytics will shift week over week so that "everyone carries the weight," the company added.

Still, all the analytics will be performed for the sake of improving the performance of the physical smartphone, not to feed more data into Facebook, Zuckerberg added.

How Home will be monetized was not immediately clear. Starting out, there will be no ads on the software, Zuckerberg said, "but at some point there will be."

Android is the most widely used smartphone operating system, representing nearly 60 percent of worldwide smartphone shipments in 2012, Analysys Mason said in its survey.

Facebook has been under pressure to engage users more deeply on mobile devices, and in particular to show them more advertisements, as more people move away from its services on the desktop.

Advertisers have not transitioned to mobile as dramatically as end users. Facebook's mobile business still only accounts for 23 percent of its total advertising revenue.

Yet in January, Facebook reported that the number of daily mobile users had exceeded daily Web users for the first time ever in 2012's fourth quarter.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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