By Doug Gross
(CNN) — Facebook has unveiled a new product, Facebook Home, at an event everyone knew would have something to do with phones and apps and operating systems.
“We’re not building a phone and we’re not building an operating system,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday. “But we’re also building something that’s a whole lot deeper than just another app.”
Um, OK. Thanks for clarifying that, Zuck.
In all seriousness, though, here’s the breakdown on Home, a feature Facebook hopes will make it part of everything you do on your phone.
What is it?
As described by Zuckerberg and others, Home is a “family of apps” that essentially push Facebook content front and center on your Android phone.
Once the phone “wakes up,” the home screen and lock screen are replaced with something called “Cover Feed.” Images and posts from friends will appear as the new screen’s background. Users can flip through and interact with them — “like” an update, or post a comment — immediately without having to open a specific Facebook app. One touch takes the user to their apps, or back to the last app they were using.
Home’s other big feature was called “Chat Heads,” which is a basically a tool that combines Facebook Messenger with the phone’s regular SMS text-message tool. Messages pop up regardless of what the user is doing at the time, along with the sender’s profile picture, enclosed in a little circle.
The user can decide whether to open the message (without leaving the app or other screen they’re on), dismiss it or save it for later with a single touch.
When and where can I get it?
Home will be available in the Google Play mobile store on April 12 for at least some Android phones. Users will be able to choose whether to install it permanently, or for a one-off trial session.
At release, it will only be optimized for Samsung’s Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II and the HTC One line of phones. It will run on the Galaxy S 4 and the HTC One when those phones are released, with other phones being added in the coming months.
Facebook said a version for tablets will be released “within several months.”
How about my iPhone?
Your wait might be quite a bit longer. Or, you know, forever.
During the event, Zuckerberg repeatedly talked about how Google’s open Android system was the perfect place to build Home. It’s not unusual for mobile-device makers, most notably Amazon with its Kindle Fire tablets, to tweak the system to suit their own needs.
Apple, on the other hand, has a very closed operating system, giving its developers far less leeway in exchange for what the company says is a smoother, better-developed user experience. Creating something like Home for Apple’s iOS system would require an almost unprecedented partnership between the companies.
“Anything that happens with Apple is going to happen with partnership,” Zuckerberg said. “Google’s Android is open so we don’t have to work with them.”
Still, Facebook isn’t ruling out the possibility, at least not officially.
“This is a first step and we’re continuing to iterate,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in response to iPhone questions. “We chose to start building on Android because we could build a more deeply integrated mobile experience. We’ll continue to test and iterate on the Facebook experience across all platforms. ”
What happened to the Facebook phone I was hearing about?
Well, there’s not one. While rumors to that effect have swirled for a couple of years, Facebook has always maintained it wasn’t “making” a phone. That remains technically true.
But at Wednesday’s event, HTC unveiled the HTC First, an AT&T exclusive Android phone that will be released the same day Facebook Home goes live. The phone will have Home pre-loaded as the default version of its operating system.
So it’s the closest thing to a Facebook phone for now.
Unveiled by CEO Peter Chou, the First will be a mid-range phone that looks vaguely like an iPhone 5, with a 4.3-inch screen and dual-core Snapdragon processor. It will sell for $99 in the United States.
Folks looking for a high-end HTC phone may be more inclined to wait for the HTC One, which launches on April 19.
What are folks saying?
“Jokes aside, I think Home is a very smart thing for Facebook to do. At least for now. Really is a blanket over Android. Need to play with it.” — MG Siegler, columnist, TechCrunch
“Wonder when Twitter and others will introduce their own “super apps” that take over lock screen, home page…. .” — Stephen Levy, senior writer, Wired
“It’s nice-looking enough, for what it is. But what it is is an assumption that users want to use Facebook to filter everything they do with their smartphones … . Putting friends first isn’t a bad concept for the smartphone experience. But Facebook thinks that friends = Facebook and Facebook = friends. If this were ever true, it isn’t now.” — Jesse Brown, columnist, Maclean’s
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