Facebook Unveils New User Interface for Android Devices

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Mark Zuckerberg has put rumours of a Facebook phone to rest, unveiling exactly what his company is doing to bring itself even further into the mobile arena. The Facebook CEO has demonstrated Facebook Home, a software adaptation for Android devices that sees the world’s biggest social network integrated deeply into the user interface of handsets running Google’s mobile platform and putting updates and messages at its very core.

Last night’s launch event at Facebook’s California headquarters also saw the wraps taken off the much rumoured HTC First, a new handset that will come with Facebook Home out of the box. Demonstrated by Peter Chou, CEO of the Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer, the HTC First seems likely to be the closest thing we’ll get to the actual, dedicated Facebook phone that has been talked about for some time.

Facebook Home works in a similar way to the user interface adaptations that many smartphone manufacturers put on top of the basic Android software. It changes the look and feel of the phone, bringing deep integration with the social network to the handset’s home and lockscreens and working throughout the UI to make it easy to post things to and see updates from Facebook.

CoverFeed, as this adaptation is known, is a little like BlinkFeed on the HTC One and sits right on the homescreen of the device, pulling through updates as they come in. These are also delivered to the handset’s lockscreen so that users can stay up to date without even having to unlock the phone.

Updates and postings from Facebook can be ‘liked’ directly from the homescreen and while CoverFeed takes over the  main screen of a device, there is still room for apps, with favourites being housed in a folder and others arranged on another screen just a swipe away.

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Beyond this, Facebook Home allows you to message friends easily, with contact’s profile pictures displayed in a circular icon (known as a ‘Chat Head’) that can be tapped to send them a message.

This works throughout the device’s UI and can be accessed even if you are already within another app, so you don’t have to skip out of one app and into another in order to reply. Chat Heads also work with text messages – meaning a variety of different ways of contacting people are pulled together in one place and little distinction is drawn between text and Facebook messages.

Notifications also work within CoverFeed, so if a friend sends you a direct message it will appear on the homescreen. These can then be replied to instantly or swiped away so that you can put off dealing with them until later.

Facebook Home is designed for smartphone users who put social networking at the very top of their priorities list when using their handset, a demographic which appears to be growing and growing. It allows very quick access to updates from Facebook and the functions that the service offers, moving beyond the website or app based interfaces that have been seen from the social network so far, to one which runs throughout a smartphone and integrates at a deeper level than previously seen.

In teaming up with Facebook, HTC has made a widely anticipated move but done it in an unusual way; the HTC First’s main selling point will be that it has Facebook Home but that software will soon be coming to many other Android devices, somewhat negating the new handset’s most prominent feature.

As for the roll-out, HTC’s highest spec Android devices look set to be getting Facebook Home first along with several others such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note 2. There will likely be quite a scramble to get the software when it becomes available and we wonder what sort of usage figures it will initially see.

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Facebook Home is doubtless aimed at cashing in on the enormous mobile userbase the social network has, something which the company has had trouble doing in the past. Facebook makes its money through advertising and while the first version of the new Android software will not feature ads they will be coming to the service in the future, integrating with CoverFeed in a similar way to the news feed ads seen on Facebook’s desktop counterpart.

This could well be the future of Facebook (and social networking as a whole) on mobile, with the UI adaptations seen here doubtless having great appeal to heavy users of the network. Not restricting the software to just one handset could prove to be a wise move; after all, even the best selling, high-end smartphones only sell tens of millions of units whereas Facebook Home could theoretically reach a far greater number of devices.

If this format succeeds it will no doubt be built upon and other services could launch similar mobile software, opening up a whole new way in which we interact both with social networks and with smartphones themselves.

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