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Facebook isn't building its own phone or its own operating system. It isn't even bothering to fork Android, the way Amazon did. It's too smart for that. Instead, it's trying to reprogram Android to serve a new master. Google made Android open, so Facebook decided to move on in and make itself at home.
On April 12, the company plans to release Facebook Home, a suite of mobile apps that make social interaction a more prominent part of the user experience. "We're not building a phone and we're not building an operating system but we're also building something that's a whole lot deeper than an ordinary app," said CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a press conference at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.
Facebook Home's main feature is a service called Cover Feed that will appear on lock screens of Android devices where it has been installed. A variation on the company's successful News Feed, Cover Feed will become the first thing seen on Facebook-colonized Android phones, and it's likely to keep users involved and interacting with Facebook's other mobile social apps, which include Notifications, Chat Heads, App Launcher and Instagram.
At some point, Facebook Home apps will deliver ads and contribute to the company's bottom line. But not immediately, according to Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg made it sound as if Android's openness was an invitation for his company's Home Screen invasion. But Google, Android's keeper, isn't likely to be enthusiastic about its new, possibly permanent guest. Facebook already draws more attention than any other mobile activity besides gaming. By taking over Android's interface, Facebook stands to command even more user focus.
Facebook has partnered with mobile handset maker HTC and mobile carrier AT&T to have Facebook Home preloaded on the forthcoming HTC First. The phone will be available for $99 from AT&T on the same day that Facebook Home can be downloaded from the Google Play store.
Facebook says Home will be made available on other phones, including the HTC One, One X and One X+ and the Samsung GALAXY S III, Note II, and S4. Broader Android compatibility and availability has yet to be disclosed.
But does anyone really want to elevate Facebook from an app to an omnipresent communications framework?
Jack E. Gold, a research analyst for Gold Associates, expressed skepticism in an email. "The fundamental question to me is, will users want to essentially spend all of their time in this one uber app?" he said. "I'm sure those that spend 90% of their time in Facebook will find it appealing. But I believe that is a small minority. What Facebook sees as Home, others might see as a jail -- too much control and too many boundaries for them, especially if they are only occasional users of Facebook."
Dig into our slideshow to have a look around your potential new Facebook Home.
Cover Feed will be the first thing you see when you power up your phone. You can never get enough of your friends, can you?
Not all your Cover Feed photos are guaranteed to be this appealing. You're going to have to accept some bad photography.
Facebook asks your permission before taking over your Android phone. This is what a user should see in the process of installing and authorizing Facebook Home.
Notifications appear stacked up, like the rungs of a ladder. They can be tapped and opened, or gathered and dismissed.
At the heart of it all, Facebook's mobile app remains ready to bask in your attention.
Facebook's iOS app, seen on the iPhone to the left, will remain Home-less for a while. Apple doesn't allow third-party developers to challenge the order of things.
Chat Heads is Facebook's new messaging app that persists when other apps are open. There's no escaping your friends.
The HTC First comes with Facebook Home pre-installed. It's available in four colors.
"The Home Screen is really the soul of your phone," said Facebook CEO Zuckerberg. "You look at it about 100 times a day. "It sets the tone for the whole experience." The soul of your phone? No wonder Facebook wants to own it.