I still don't know what to think about Facebook. I should probably have a better answer than that. After all, we're supposed to go to an event for a couple hours, play with some new stuff -- in this case Facebook Home and the "Facebook phone," aka the HTC First -- and have all the answers, complete with video, slideshow and a couple thousand words telling everyone why what we just saw is the greatest thing since the last greatest thing, or how it'll fail harder than the last time someone went off the reservation.
But that's business as usual. And I don't think what we saw last week at Facebook HQ is business as usual.
The new apps
Let's start with Facebook Home. The most basic explanation is that it's a companion launcher to go along with the traditional Facebook application, turning your home screen into a sort of uber-Facebook reader, brining your friends to you ahead of the application. It's very nicely designed. Looks great, and it's easy to use. Yes, you'll need to be really into Facebook to use this. But, again, that's who it's for.
It'll be interesting to see how much confusion comes from Facebook Home on the existing cadre of phones that can run it. (That's the Samsung Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4 and the Note 3, as well as the HTC One X and One X+, and the new HTC One.) Setting a new launcher to be the default home action is gonna freak people out. They'll probably get used to it easily enough, but there's going to be a little bit of a learning curve there.
(On the other hand, look at SwiftKey, another popular downloadable application. It's got a fairly complex setup process, and it's doing just fine.)
Facebook has clarified that Facebook Home -- the launcher -- will be a separate download from the application. That's a pretty big barrier to installation, but it's the right move. If you don't want to use Facebook Home, you don't have to.
The new phone
The HTC First is actually pretty intriguing. The tech press is falling all over itself because it's a "stock Android" phone. That is, Facebook Home runs on top of a pretty unadulterated build of Android 4.1. So if you turn off Facebook Home, you're back to a Nexus-like experience. And we're all required, by law, to love the stock Android experience.
But what's more is that this phone gives us, the tech press, everything we've been clamoring for in other phones. It's not too big at 4.3 inches. It's got a microSD card -- never mind that there's nothing "stock Android" about that anymore. It's only got 1GB of RAM and is running on the Snapdragon 400 processor -- today's latest and greatest is on the Snapdragon 600 -- which Qualcomm itself bills for "entry level" phones.
I think that's a pretty long way to go (or stoop?) for a "stock Android" experience with LTE -- while giving up other great features like HTC's camera work, or Samsung's gazillion other bells and whistles. But I think that shows just how much folks have been clamoring for an unskinned phone that's not too big and has LTE. In the world of trade-offs, perhaps the HTC First has the fewest?
I'm real curious to see how the battery life holds up. It's got an embedded 2,000 mAh battery, which isn't going to win any awards for capacity. (Remember that when folks start complaining about battery life.)
I wouldn't trade down from the Nexus 4 to the HTC First just for a "stock" experience. There are cheaper and easier ways to do it. And if you're thinking that "stock Android" on the HTC First means quicker OS updates, remember that there's still a carrier (AT&T) standing between you and a "Pure Google" experience.
It's also kind of important to remember that the HTC First is meant to be a "Facebook experience" phone, for Facebook Home and the immersed users. That's not us.
The AT&T play
I keep thinking about AT&T's role in all this. AT&T, after all, was the only U.S. operator to (briefly) carry the first "Facebook phone," the HTC ChaCha. Chances are what we're seeing this week is a continuation of whatever plan was set in motion months and years ago.
I wrote last week about how I think it may be a mistake (I'm not 100 percent sure about that though) for HTC to have its branding on the HTC First at the same time as HTC One is coming to market. Interestingly, it's "Facebook Home" that gets top billing on AT&T's website right now -- it just happens to run on the HTC First. Scroll down a bit and you'll find mention that HTC One's also up for preorder.
Goes to show that "latest and greatest" isn't always the same as "most important."
Speaking of AT&T, something else just hit me about that list of current devices that'll be able to run Facebook Home. Looking back at the slide from Thursday's presentation, not only are those all devices with a minimum 720p resolution display -- those are all on AT&T. Sure, the Samsung devices are on every other carrier, too. But here's one glaring question: Will Facebook Home not work on the Verizon Droid DNA? I bet it will. But with AT&T the prime U.S. partner for the HTC First, it wouldn't do to have another carrier's branding on the screen, would it? Inside baseball is fun.
Unify all the things
If I left the Facebook event wanting anything, it's proper unification of ... well, everything, I think. The fact is very few of us only use one app, or one ecosystem to do everything. We use Gmail. POP-based e-mail. SMS. MMS. Skype. Facebook. Google+. Instant messaging of various protocols. It's a mess.
Facebook's "chat heads" are cute and interesting, but if you've got a bunch of people pinging you at once could get pretty annoying. Or if your friends change their profile pics (still need to make sure the chat heads pull from profile pics) for the cause du jour. Or, worse, cats.
What I really want? Read/unread status synced across devices for Google IMs, so I don't have to see the same message 13 times. Because it's all about me.
As much as I like the idea of Facebook Home -- and I really do think it's a nicely designed launcher and lead-in to the traditional Facebook application -- there are many here among us (and a number of "normal" smartphone users I've talked to as well since the announcement) who simply don't want to dive headfirst off Facebook's springboard into Facebook's pool wearing Facebook's swim trunks while Facebook keeps a watchful eye from the lifeguard's chair. But the alternative remains pretty messy.
By the way ...
Facebook, AT&T and HTC might well have done something unseen in the Android world. We got the announcement of a new device, with pricing and the availability date -- all at the same time. And we get it all in a mere eight days.
Everyone else take note: This is how it's done.
So, yeah. There's still plenty to talk about -- and plenty left to experience -- in regards to the Facebook phone, and Facebook Home. I can't wait to spend some quality time with it, actually.
Plus, the HTC One's finally up for preorder. And the Galaxy S4's on its way, too. (Been singing that tune for far too long; it'll be good to finally get devices in to hands.)
Plus, Google I/O is a little more than a month away.
I dare someone to tell me it's a boring time in the Android world.
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