Facebook’s new Home on Android smartphone is an audacious attempt to demote the OS to a utility role, to keep to itself user data Android was supposed to feed into Google’s advertising business. Google’s reaction will be worth watching.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire, announced late September 2011, is viewed as a clever “Android lock pick“. Notwithstanding the term’s illicit flavor, Amazon’s burglary is entirely legal, an intended consequence of Google’s decision to Open Source their Android mobile operating system. Download the Android source code here, modify it to your heart’s — or business needs’ — content, load it onto a device and sell as many as you’d like.
Because it doesn’t fully meet the terms of the Android Compatibility Program, Amazon’s proprietary version isn’t allowed to use the Android trademark and the company had to open its own App Store. In industry argot, Amazon “forked” Android; they spawned an incompatible branch in the Android Source Tree.
The result of this heretic version of Android is a platform that’s tuned to Amazon’s own needs: Promoting its e-commerce without feeding Google’s advertising money pump.
And that brings us to Facebook’s new Home.
Zuckerberg’s new creation is the latest instance of the noble pursuit of making the user’s life easier by wrapping a shell around existing software. Creating a shell isn’t a shallow endeavor; Windows started its life as a GUI shell wrapped around MS-DOS. Even venerable Unix command line interfaces such as C shell, Bourne, and Bash (which can be found inside OS X) are user-friendly — or “somewhat friendlier” — wrappers around the Unix kernel. (Sometimes this noble pursuit is taken too far — remember Microsoft’s Bob? It was the source of many jokes.)
Facebook Home is a shell wrapped around Android; it’s a software layer that sits on top of everything else on your smartphone. Your Facebook friends, your timeline, conversations, everything is in one place. It also gives you a simple, clean way to get to other applications should you feel the need to leave the Facebook corral… but the intent is clear: Why would you ever want to leave Home?
This is audacious and clever, everything we’ve come to expect from the company’s founder.
To start with, and contrary to the speculation leading up to the announcement, Facebook didn’t unveil a piece of hardware. Why bother with design, manufacture, distribution and support, only to sell a few million devices — a tiny fraction of your one billion users — when you can sneak in and take over a much larger number of Android smartphones at a much smaller cost?
Second, Home is not only well-aligned with Facebook’s real business, advertising revenue, it’s even more aligned with an important part of the company’s business strategy: keeping that revenue out of Google’s hands. Android’s only raison d’être is to attract a captive audience, to offer free services (search, email, maps…) in order to gain access to the users’ actions and data, which Google then cashes in by selling eyeballs to advertisers. By “floating” above Android, Home can keep these actions and data to itself, out of Google’s reach.
Facebook, like Amazon, wants to keep control of its core business. But unlike Amazon, Facebook didn’t “fork” Android, it merely demoted it to an OS layer that sits underneath the Home shell.
On paper and in the demos, it sounds like Zuckerberg has run the table… but moving from concept to reality complicates matters.
First, Facebook Home isn’t the only Android shell. An important example is Samsung, the leading Android player: it provides its own TouchWiz UI. Given that the Korean giant is obviously determined to stay in control of its own core business, one wonders how the company will welcome Facebook Home into the family of Galaxy phones and phablets. Will it be a warm embrace, or will Samsung continually modify its software in order to keep Home one step behind?
More generally, Facebook has admitted that differences in Android implementations prevent the first release of Home from working on all Android phones. In order to achieve the coverage they’ll need to keep Google (and its Google+ social networking effort) at bay, Facebook could be sucked into a quagmire of development and support.
Last but not least, there’s Google’s reaction.
So far, we’ve heard little but mellifluous pablum from Google in response to Home. (Microsoft, on the other hand, quickly attempted to point out that they were first with an all-your-activities-friends-communications shell in Windows Phone but, in this game, Android is the new Windows and Microsoft is the Apple of the early 90’s.)
Google has shown that it can play nice with its competitors — as long as they aren’t actually competing on the same turf. The Mountain View company doesn’t mind making substantial ($1B or more) Traffic Acquisition payments to Apple because the two don’t compete in the Search and Advertising business. Facebook taking over an Android smartphone is another matter entirely. Google and Facebook are in the same game; they both crave access to user data.
Google could sit back and observe for a while, quantify Facebook’s actual takeover of Android phones, keep tabs on users’ reactions. Perhaps Home will be perceived as yet another walled garden with a massive handover of private data to Facebook.
But Google already sees trouble for its Android strategy.
Many Asian handset makers now adopt Android without including services such as Google Search, Gmail, and Google Maps, the all-important user data pumps. Samsung still uses many of these services but, having gained a leading role on the Android platform, it might demand more money for the user data it feeds to Google, or even fork the code.
In this context, Facebook Home could be perceived as yet another threat to the Android business model.
A number of possible responses come to mind.
In the computer industry, being annoyed or worse by “compatible” hardware or software isn’t new. As a result, the responses are well honed. You can keep changing the interface, thus making it difficult for the parasitic product to bite into its host and suck its blood (data, in this case), or you change the licensing terms.
Google could change or hide its APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) in order to limit Home’s functionality, or even prevent it from running at all (at least until a particularly nasty “bug” is fixed). Worse, Google could makes changes that cause the Facebook shell to still run, but poorly.
I’ll hasten to say that I doubt Google would do any of this deliberately — it would violate the company’s Don’t Be Evil ethos. But… accidents could happen, such as when a hapless Google engineer mistakenly captured Wifi data.
Seriously, FaceBook Home is yet another pick of the Android lock, a threat against Google’s core strategy that will have to be addressed, either with specific countermeasures or with more global changes in the platform’s monetization.