Facebook Home is coming. It’s a unique threat to Google’s mastery of Android that Google can blame nobody but itself for. It’s the unique nature of the threat — both Home’s technical foundation, and the nature of Facebook’s rivalry with Google — that I believe makes Home the first real test of Google’s “open” mantra regarding Android.
There have been many challenges to date, but most of them involve “forks” of the Android system: where another company builds their own system on top of a previous Android release. Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Barnes and Noble’s nook, and Samsung’s rumored / assumed proprietary fork are all notable examples of Android derivatives. None of these to date have looked poised to take Android away from Mountain View anytime soon. Samsung, with its market share momentum and marketing prowess, could stand to be a significant threat, but for now its flagship products still run Google’s “stock” Android, more or less.
Horace Dediu put it plainly:
Facebook Home can only reside on Android because only Google was daft enough to allow it.
At the least, I expect an increased emphasis from Google on the virtues of “stock” Android, and an increased push to make that consistent for consumers. This is already underway on both OEM and developer fronts, but Facebook’s lurking presence will force the issue that much harder.
Home’s to-be-determined success could also force Apple’s hand. Such a product is neither technically nor legally feasible on iOS at the moment, and Facebook’s integration into iOS 6, while powerful, is much less than Facebook Home provides on Android, and thus presumably much less than Facebook wants on iOS. As I said last week, if too many consumers start considering Facebook Home a deal breaker, Apple may need to make some moves of its own. How many consumers that is, and whether they’ll in fact get on board, remains to be seen. All of this just underscores what’s at stake for everyone — Facebook most of all. With just one announcement, Facebook has made itself a strategic stakeholder in the mobile landscape. It’s no longer just a website and an app.
Google knew what it was doing when it made and marketed Android as an “open” system. It surely anticipated forks by handset makers as a manageable risk as long as Google kept advancing the system. But I wonder if it expected something like Facebook Home: an inside-out heist, made by a company after the same exact user data and advertisers Google is after. How it chooses to respond in the near future should give us an answer.
You’ve built an enormous business around a desktop website. Unfortunately, people around the world are spending more and more time on mobile devices. The vast majority of these devices run software from only two companies. One of these companies is actively competing with you.
You cannot put your future in a competitor’s hands. So what do you do? Do you enter uncharted territory, make your own mobile operating system, and hope people switch?
Of course not. You make your competitor’s system yours — overnight. Facebook Home is a trojan horse designed to steal the Android experience, and the Android user base, right out of Google’s hands. The majority of speculation over the last year or two had been that Facebook was working on its own mobile OS. It may well be, but this move is so much smarter on a number of fronts:
- Time. Home significantly increases Facebook’s mobile presence without being everything. A lot of time and care seems to have gone into it, but it’s surely far less than a full-blown operating system would require.
- Installed base. Built in. The sales pitch is very simple: If you have a device that Home supports, download it. No money, no switcher headaches. Blackberry and Windows Phone sales prove that people aren’t looking for new platforms right now.
- Software Experience. Facebook’s engineers have surely learned a lot from this project. That experience will be reapplied not only to expanding Home itself, but to building a full-blown OS if they want.
- Hardware Experience. While the software is the real news here, Facebook took the initiative to also start working with a handset maker. The HTC First is hardly a “Facebook phone”, but it’s a chance for Facebook to experience the complexity of coordinating hardware, software, and carrier partnerships from a distance. Remember the Motorola ROKR? Remember what happened fifteen months later?
- HTC was the obvious choice. Samsung and Android have ruined them, and they’re desperate to stay relevant. Facebook likely got everything they asked for.
Facebook has loudly and confidently entered an arena it has no prior experience in, and has set a clear path to expand its influence at its own pace. Facebook Home will provide a halo effect to current Android users that warms them up to a full-blown “Facebook phone” in the years to come. It gives Facebook the experience, confidence, credibility, momentum, and time to build a better and broader mobile experience than they would have been able to build otherwise. It’s as prudent as it is ambitious.
I think we’ll know well before the end of this year how Facebook Home affects handset sales. If buyers start asking “does it have Facebook Home?” — and I think many will — that will be bad news for both Google and Apple. However, the Google – Facebook war is sure to be more vicious than the Google – Apple war because Google and Facebook have the same customers: advertisers. Users are their currency, and Facebook is about to rob the bank.
I was honored to be the guest on Episode 9 of Debug with my friends Rene Ritchie and Guy English. We talked about the values and principles that make a difference when building software, the unsung heroes of a successful project, the price of deferring the wrong bugs, and other geeky things.
You should check out the previous episodes as well. Rene and Guy have managed to get great guests every time. Until this week, at least.
An increasingly-justified fear of irrelevance seems to be driving Sony’s every move these days. Its latest public display: yesterday’s clearly-too-soon announcement of the PlayStation 4. It was by nearly all accounts a bizarre two-hour ordeal that featured no launch date, no pricing, and no product.
Everything about this event, from the lack of specifics, to the Office Space slides with MS Paint brains, to the creepy old man head, points to a rushed announcement. Why? Why did Sony need to talk on February 20th? Why not wait for a presentable product? Some playable games? Anything real? And why release the technical specs after the event, having just filled a room with reporters for two hours? Even the official press release feels sloppy, listing PlayStation 4 itself after the new controller and camera. Everything about the announcement is weird.
It’s easy to get sidetracked and ridicule Sony (again), but this is a teachable moment. People would have happily waited longer for a comprehensive, exciting product launch. It’s been nearly seven years since the last PlayStation was revealed; would another month or two have tipped some scale? Whoever this was aimed at — developers, hardcore gamers, casual gamers — the utter lack of usable information makes the timing questionable at best.
There are also competitive repercussions: Sony has now shown its hand way ahead of time. Microsoft is not expected to announce its next-generation Xbox until E3 in June, leaving more than three months to respond accordingly. If Sony’s offering ends up superior to the Xbox when that announcement happens, then Sony hasn’t gained much, because we still don’t know what it has or what it can do, and it’ll be months-old news. If Sony’s offering ends up inferior, it will be upstaged and stale.
If you’re going to strike early, you must strike hard. A strong offering is strong at any time. The same goes for a weak one. The difference is knowing what you have, and adjusting the message accordingly. Sony did not do that yesterday, and has now lost the opportunity to do so tomorrow.
Apple cannot afford to get too big or too disorganized. That’s my takeaway from yesterday’s shocker that not only is Scott Forstall out at Apple, but also that his fiefdom is being split between Craig Federighi, Eddy Cue, and Jony Ive. We learned a lot about Tim Cook yesterday.
First: retail chief John Browett was surely done before we on the outside even heard about his scorched-earth penny pinching. My first thought when those stories started to hit was, If this is true and Tim does not fire him, there’s a problem in Cupertino. What’s telling is how long it took. I suspect Forstall had worn out his welcome long enough ago that Cook held onto Browett for a single press release. Canning Browett so soon after hiring him, then losing Forstall just a few months later, would have shaken a lot of confidence. Losing Forstall sooner would have disrupted teams and product launches. There’s only one headline now, and it’s framed in a proactive manner. From a cold business and PR perspective, I’m very impressed. Tim clearly knows every side of how Apple does things.
Forstall’s star shot upwards from a low level to standing alongside Bertrand Serlet — the man he worked under for years. When Bertrand left Apple, I was sure that Forstall would press to expand his influence, even if he wasn’t given Bertrand’s turf. When Steve departed, I felt the same way. I’m not surprised his style continued to ruffle feathers, but I’m shocked that it cost him his job. I underestimated Cook. Scott’s absence from the iPad mini event last week should have been more alarming to everybody.
If this was only about Forstall being a problem, though, Apple would replace him. They clearly aren’t: the same press release explicitly states a search is underway to replace Browett. Not only is this a profound increase in responsibility for all three of these top executives, it’s a profound change in Apple’s organization going as far back as I can remember. There’s a long-standing pattern of separating watershed products important to the company’s future. The Mac and Apple teams. Mac OS X and Classic. The iPod division. iOS and Mac OS X. Suddenly, Tim Cook has pulled the reins in. Federighi owns software. Ive owns design. Cue owns services. Period.
Apple’s insane growth has pushed the situation over the edge. Too much size and separation inevitably bring politics, chaos, dropped balls, and finger pointing. None of those things are good for Apple’s products or customers. What we don’t know is whether burdening Cue, Federighi, and Ive even further will actually improve things. These guys already had enough to worry about. The worst case scenario is one where good leadership is spread too thin, and everything suffers. These are real growing pains.
Four hundred million devices and five hundred billion dollars later, Apple is different. It’s just finally starting to look that way.