Facebook Home: The First SuperApp

Babe Ruth was said to be “more than a man, but less than a god.” On April 12, Facebook will launch “Home,” a program that is more than an app, but less than a device.

Home is a downloadable application for Android devices, which transforms the operating system to integrate Facebook into the look and functions of the device. Instead of Facebook’s current app, which opens and closes at the user’s request, Home is an always-on application – a clever, almost devious strategy, co-opting devices instead of creating their own.

Impact for Apple and Google

For now and the foreseeable future, Facebook Home will only be available on Android devices. In an interview with Wired magazine, Mark Zuckerberg summarized the challenge of bringing Home to iPhones:

“We have a pretty good partnership with Apple, but they want to own the whole experience themselves. There aren’t a lot of bridges between us and Google, but we are aligned with their open philosophy… Of course, a lot of people also love iPhones — I love mine, and I would like to be able to deliver Facebook Home there as well.”

Zuckerberg predicts that the availability of Home will help sell more Android devices. That type of market pressure is only reason that Apple would change their stance and allow an operating system-altering application such as Home. For Google, if Home boosts the sales of Android devices, that means increased use of its services such as search and maps. However, it could mean usage of Gmail and Google+ could drop on Home-enabled devices.

A Home for Ads, too?

The advertising implications are hazy – Facebook has neither confirmed nor denied if ads of any kind will be a part of Home. If ads are integrated, it could be a powerful platform for marketers. Using location data, a brand could deliver ads to users on their lock screen when they are close to a store, or potentially target users based on data from usage on their other apps.
There are two major roadblocks for ad integration on Home. First, Google restricts monetization on apps sold through Google Play. Facebook could skirt Play by creating its own app store, similar to Amazon’s, but that is a can of worms Facebook will likely avoid opening.

The second roadblock is potentially bigger. How many advertisements will users tolerate on their lock screen and home screen? On Facebook.com and the current Facebook app, users are exposed to ads, but it is seen as the cost of doing business in exchange for a free service. Home changes the equation. Will users tolerate Facebook ads when they are not engaging with Facebook? In all likelihood, Facebook will not launch ads with Home for quite a while.
Even if ads are never a part of Facebook Home, the data which Facebook captures from Home users will almost certainly be used to target Facebook ads on its website and on the traditional app.

The SuperApp Litmus Test

Zuckerberg has stated one of the reasons Facebook did not pursue creating a device is because it would limit scale. Home will only be a success if a significant portion of Facebook users adopt it. If Home is a success, it is not hard to imagine more functions being added and its expansion to more devices. Facebook already has a tablet version of Home to be released later this year.

Ultimately, Home’s success will depend on how much control users are willing to give to a company. Home is essentially Facebook asking users to give up their control of the “on/off button” in exchange for a better user experience. It is a large-scale litmus test for this new type of relationship, one that will have far-reaching effects on the future of digital interfaces:

» If Facebook Home is successful, a wave of always-on SuperApps will surely follow, and not all of them would have to have a billion-person user base in order to be successful. Twitter could create a similar interface with always-on timelines, Amazon could have a stream of Gold Box deals for your lock screen, or ESPN could create an immersive sports experience.
» If Facebook Home flops, it will send a signal to the market which will make other companies hesitant to develop anything similar for their brand.

For these reasons, Facebook Home will be fascinating to watch over the next 12 months. Home could be a game changer in mobile applications or a case study in overestimating brand loyalty in the same vein as New Coke.

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