I'll say this for Facebook. They will never stop finding ways to appall me.
Facebook Home, the new branded edition of Android that is being rolled out in conjunction with various phone vendors— HTC most prominent among them— is even more disturbing than I imagined.
The idea is simple enough. Facebook has created an Android 4.1-powered launcher and phone environment, which will be released on a number of phones offered at low price points ($99 for the HTC First, for instance). The main UI for Home, called Coverfeed, is a full-screen stream of updates and contact notifications— a giant Facebook skin.
The Verge put it this way: "Facebook wants to make your phone a lot more like your News Feed."
Putting aside what an appalling concept this is— have you seen what a ghastly, disorganized, unsortable mess Facebook News Feeds are?— the first thing I find interesting is why HTC is participating in this when it is attempting to do something vaguely similar with the new version of the HTC One. That phone features "BlinkFeed", a homepage news stream app, custom-built for the phone. It doesn't consume RSS, but rather a proprietary update format which HTC has enlisted a whole roster of websites to provide for them.
See, I didn't think BlinkFeed was a terrible idea, just not a particularly good one. After all, why reinvent RSS? I suspect everything BlinkFeed does could have been accomplished with RSS or Atom, plus maybe some existing semantic markup.
But Facebook Home isn't just about reinventing the wheel. It's aimed at scrapping it entirely.
Facebook's long-term ambition has been twofold. First, to become the de facto front end for the web— to become a portal not just to the lives of your buddies, but to everything else that is on the web in the first place. (There is remarkably little discussion about Facebook eclipsing Google as a search engine, maybe because nobody thinks the subject is worth taking seriously; they need to reconsider.) The second step is to replace the web entirely— to take every piece of functionality that we've normally associated with the rest of the web, from picture storage to news aggregation to messaging— and reincarnate it inside Facebook's ad-driven walled garden.
Facebook Home is yet another way to do that. By giving people a low-entry-level device that's essentially a front end for Facebook— or a convenient all-in-one fullscreen app— they make it easier for people to dispense with dealing with any other part of the web that's not Facebook. They don't have to block anything explicitly; they just have to make the Home experience so immersive, and offer so much through it, that after a while you don't feel the need to touch anything else. And given that I have friends who barely know a web that exists outside of Facebook, that's really unnerving.
What I'm reminded of, more than anything else, is the way Microsoft bundles IE with Windows and used MSN (and then later Bing) as the default homepage for the browser. It was, and is, a clever tactic: it drove a certain built-in level of traffic to those services and gave IE some automatic market share. But even MSN and Bing are not total enclosures; they're way stations to other things. Facebook, though, wants to save you the step of having to go anywhere else. How nice of them.
HTC isn't the only company that's signed up for Home as a partner. Sony and Samsung are also in, although whether they'll be offering phones similar to HTC's product isn't clear; I suspect it's about their phones being able to run Home without undue difficulty (and not, say, have Android updates break it). Another version for tablets is also under development for release later this year, with what I suspect will be an immersivity all of its own.
And while ads are not present in Home yet, Zuckerberg & Co. made no bones about eventually including them. I suspect their strategy is to get the phones out to the general public first, harvest some behavioral telemetry for several months, then crunch those numbers and figure out where would be the best place to put the ads other than in a cluttered right-hand column that nobody looks at anyway. They are nothing if not clever.
The fact that Facebook is ad-driven is not what's disturbing about it. Many other sites use ads to monetize their content. It is that they invert the relationship between advertiser and consumer. You're not the user of Facebook; you're one of its products, and they go to some length to conceal the implications of this from you. Home is just the newest wrinkle in how they plan to accomplish this. And the terrible thing about it is that it might actually work exactly as intended.