Way back when Apple was only awesome at personal computers, design software and portable music players, it faced a difficult decision in how to enter the mobile space. At the time the mobile landscape was murky, plagued by sluggish networks, device disparity and fragmented operating systems. Operators’ grip on the mobile consumer was unchallenged; they controlled the hardware, software and even mobile Internet. Apps? Psssh.
At the hardware level, while few challenged Apple’s chops for good design, many more thought the pecularities of mobile would handcuff the company. Devices were getting smaller, not bigger (remember the RAZR?), and the notion of a smartphone hadn’t really been fully baked at that point - the RIM Blackberry popular among email warriors notwithstanding. Would it have a full keyboard? Stylus? Mobile operators had spent billions of dollars on expensive infrastructure, complex hardware alliances and OS design. Superbly-crafted walled gardens protected their feifdoms. How would a new player in the space be able to navigate this tricky landscape?
In a word, brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that in its clamor to sell the device, AT&T all but caved to some rigorous, unprecedented demands from Apple, including a $10 per month royalty for every iPhone customer. More importantly, the carrier yielded complete control over the design, manufacturing and marketing of the iPhone’s hardware and software.
Apple started with a clean slate, desigining a completely new mobile experience from the ground up with little, if any, regard for how mobile worked before.
Facebook is doing the same thing.
The same rumors that swirled around the debut of the iPhone ran rampant around Menlo Park as Facebook contemplated its next move in the mobile space. Would there be a Facebook phone? Who would make it? Will it compete with iPhone? What platform will support it? What carrier will ship it? How much will it cost?
In April, we got our answer in Facebook Home. It is an operating system. It is an app. It is the mobile web. It is all of those things. It is none of those things. It is, simply, mobile done right.
While the spending in mobile is on apps, video, mobile Internet and a dizzying array of mostly ineffectual advertising platforms, companies like Facebook are throwing away everything we thought we knew about how to do mobile.
First off, Facebook sought an experience that echoed the original intent of the phone as it was first imagined – to connect people. “Traditionally, phones and operating systems were designed with apps and tasks in mind. With this, we wanted to recreate the most social device you have around people,” said Facebook’s Justin Stahl. More tellingly, Facebook product director Adam Mosseri adds, “People and content should be first, and we thought that needed to happen at a really deep level. Apps get in the way. Having something meaningful show up the second I turn on my phone is by far my favorite part of the experience.”
The app (yes, it is software you download) immerses you in a world free of menus, widgets and rows and rows of apps. Acting as a sort of wallpaper for your phone, Facebook Home’s cover flow is an engaging presentation of the latest photos and posts from friends. It is gesture based - even more natural and intuitive than conventional touch screen UX design; Facebook describes it as “organic.” Chat Heads, Facebook’s innovative attempt at recreating the mobile chat paradigm, is a great example. You can touch a head or anywhere else on the screen to dismiss the chat, and then have fun flinging your friends’ heads around the screen at will. Blues Clues help Facebook Home users navigate around the app.
While the reviews for Home are decidedly mixed (there are nearly four times as many one star reviews as five star reviews), as a first pass I think this is a really strong effort from Facebook. For Facebook users more inclined to use phones as a way to connect with friends and family, rather than, say, play with apps or tinker with widgets, it is a solid choice. That Facebook took this route, rather than designing an entire operating system, or, worse, getting into the hardware game, is evidence the social giant is serious about addressing one of its most vexing challenges to date - how to monetize the mobile channel. Based on the amount of behavioral data Home can collect, the future looks pretty bright in Menlo Park.