Facebook Home: The Local Angle

Facebook homeI attended the Facebook Home launch earlier today. The rumors were nearly 100% accurate: almost everything had been leaked except some of the specific functionality.

A considerable amount has already been written about Home. I was among a legion of bloggers and journalists cranking out stories and explaining “what it all means” within minutes of the conclusion of the roughly one hour presentation by Mark Zuckerberg and Co.

You already know the basics but I’ll review them at a high level. More importantly I’ll also explore the local implications and offer some near-term speculation about where the product may be headed.

Here are the main points about the announcement: 

  • Facebook Home is not a “forked” version of Android
  • It’s a software layer/skin that sits on top of everything else and controls the homescreen and lock screen, making Facebook the dominant experience and brand on the handset
  • The deepest integration and fullest expression of the vision is the HTC First from AT&T (in the US), which will be available on April 12 for $99 (+2 year contract).
  • The Home app download will become simultaneously available from Google Play. It will largely offer the same functionality as the HTC “Facebook phone.” However it will only work on ICS and Jelly Bean Android phones — not Gingerbread phones which still represent the largest block of Android handsets.
  • There will be ads though not for some time
  • The privacy implications and data being collected by the phone are not entirely clear at the moment.
  • No iOS version any time soon (if ever) and Windows Phone or BlackBerry are pretty uncertain.

But is there demand for a “Facebook phone”? 

Facebook Home offers a richly designed experience that’s quite different from existing Android UIs. In fact it represents a new kind of model for others to potentially emulate. That’s not its intent but I predict that will be its impact.

As the survey data below argue, while few people say they want a “Facebook phone” (in the abstract) the actual experience of Facebook Home will likely change some opinions. It’s more impressive and “cool” than I anticipated.

Demand for Facebook Phone

Source: Retrevo 

Millions of downloads? 

The Home app will probably be widely downloaded when it launches April 12. Just how widely and whether people remain engaged with it over time are open questions. Hardcore Facebook enthusiasts will gleefully embrace Home. Those with ambivalence or distrust of Facebook will not. The vast middle realm of users who are neither fanboys nor paranoid about Facebook are in play.

Facebook Home, especially with its Chat Heads messaging feature, is also partly intended to appeal to younger users, many of whom don’t use Facebook now or have abandoned it in favor of other apps (see Instagram). It’s uncertain how many of them Home will entice.

But let us assume that Home generates millions of installs and becomes wildly successful (at least in terms of initial downloads). Scale will directly impact the home/lock screen advertising question, which I’ll explore in a later blog post.

More features coming Home

One of the really curious things about Facebook Home is that it doesn’t take on the full range of features and capabilities of the current Facebook app. Phones with Home will also still have a separate Facebook app, which retains most of the functionality, including Facebook Nearby/Local Search.

Facebook’s newly introduced Graph Search doesn’t yet exist on mobile, but it will (confirmed informally by MZ today). Facebook yesterday changed the name of its in-app local search feature from “Nearby” to the more descriptive “Local Search.”

Local search is a fundamental part of the mobile experience, even more than conventional web search. Graph Search and Local Search will ultimately merge in mobile, but that’s yet another story.

As a fundamental matter, wouldn’t you expect Facebook to offer Local Search more prominently in mobile, in the context of Home? You would indeed.

Graph Search and Local Search

Right now on a “Home phone” you have to launch the Facebook app, open the left panel and then drill down into Local Search. This is terribly inefficient and provides users with a sub-par experience. Accordingly I suspect we’ll see Local Search come to Home in the next six months or so.

The next build of Home already exists and is being tested internally. Facebook launched with a developed but limited set of features to gain feedback before rolling out more things. Over time more of the Facebook app’s capabilities will be integrated into Home.

Facebook has said that every month it will push new features and updates to users. Eventually that will include Local Search — I’m confident. The logic is inexorable. Once that happens — if there are millions of users — it could divert some high-value local traffic from Google and Google Maps to Facebook. According to comScore Facebook is the second most widely used local search app — and that’s before Facebook has really gotten started.

Zuckerberg said today that the company expects much higher levels of engagement with Home than even the current app, which is the single most successful native app in terms of time spent.

Flurry apps time spent

Threat to Google? 

As I’ve indicated, especially in local, Facebook could become a threat to Google on Android devices if:

  1. Home achieves scale
  2. Facebook “elevates” Local Search to the Home page

For those users who buy the First or download home, Facebook becomes the primary brand on their Android phones. It sits “above” or “over” Google. And while all Google’s services and apps remain available they are “pushed down” a click or a swipe. Google’s search box is no longer the first thing you see when you wake up your phone — it’s Facebook content.

Facebook Home is intended to “flip” the experience on Android phones: emphasizing people rather than tasks and apps. But it also flips the relationship between Facebook and Google. Rather than being the dominant brand and uber-app on Android phones, Google becomes subordinate to Facebook and just another publisher.

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