A couple of days ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced the new Facebook Home. Rather than the speculated new phone from Facebook, it’s instead, a new “home” screen of the Android phone. Or, put differently, an Android Facebook “skin”. Wired went as far as to refer to this as Zuck’s Android Takeover.
Facebook Home has vividly demonstrated that the Android ecosystem has been a double-edged sword, both for the handset manufacturers that are on the Android bandwagon, and to a lesser extent, to the mobile telecom operators.
Well, both the operators and the handset manufacturers don’t just want to sell handsets or acquire more customers. They want to get their customers to buy and use additional products and services. They want to cultivate a longer-term relationship with their customers. They want to be able to offer customers a unique experiences. All this could be done with features/functions of the smartphone itself or through unique services offered. Facebook Home limits their abilities to make this happen.
Android has benefited Manufacturers thus far…
Android has allowed manufacturers to focus on the hardware and drive it forward aggressively. Android also fostered a huge number of applications compatible with their devices, which have benefited users. Manufacturers, still needed to spend resources thinking about how to differentiate.
For operators, it allowed them to (reluctantly) remember what they do best – and that’s not to specify phone features and capabilities, but rather to operate a large telecom network and all associated aspects (retail, support, and more). However, operators too need to constantly differentiate in terms of the end-user experience of their services.
Innovation is required
What does every company need to do in order to survive and thrive? It needs to innovate. And, to innovate means to differentiate their products/services from those of the competition. For operators and manufacturers, this means different things. However, being able to have apps and “front ends” integrated into the phone, was one of the key methods both of these categories of players sought to use for differentiation.
For an operator, an example of this might have been some VOD application just for their subscribers or something to integrate another service in their portfolio (e.g. TV). For a manufacturer, this might have meant a slick alternative to the default Android front end. Both of them might have liked to “skin” Android to be unique to them, and some did try to do so to varying degrees of success.
One might think that smartphone manufacturers can differentiate based on hardware features, for example:
- Screen quality (size, resolution, brightness).
- Camera quality (resolution, low-light, etc.).
- Speed (processor+).
- Connectivity (networking, Bluetooth, NFC, and more).
- Capacity (storage, memory).
- Sensors and UX operation (hand waving, gyros, accelerometers, etc.).
- Environmental resistance (water/dust resistance).
- Dimensions (weight, width, screen size).
- Battery life.
While this seems like a long list of features, providing plenty of opportunity to differentiate, it isn’t so. Soon, all manufacturers will be so good, that differentiating on these parameters simply won’t be enough. All devices will be similarly “amazing”. Manufacturers wanted to “own” the device home screen!
Since everyone who isn’t Apple is using Android, it’s going to be hard for any manufacturer to create a true stand out device. The phone and tablet business feels a lot like the PC business did in the Wintel era – lots of undifferentiated hardware running the same software. But Samsung has the right idea – separate the features of the hardware (which everyone can OEM) and concentrate on the benefits of the software (which can, in some cases, be proprietary).
Then, Facebook Home Came Along
And it is claiming that one piece of vital real estate – the home screen of the phone. If users embrace Facebook Home, it would mean that neither the manufacturers nor the operators would have much ability for differentiation.
And there lies the risk of Android (the double-edged sword). By buying into Android, anybody could have come along, at any time, and snatch this precious real estate. As long as it was very fragmented and only a tiny fraction of users replaced their smartphone’s default experience, the risk was contained. But when someone like Facebook comes along and offers an alternative, it could really eat into their ability to differentiate.
If I were in Samsung, HTC, LG, AT&T, Verizon, Orange, or Vodafone, I’d be wishing Facebook Home would not stick with users… Thankfully, I’m not :-)…
So, what does Google think about this?
Well, this post couldn’t end without thinking about Google’s perspective. I seriously doubt Google are happy about this (as also sensed from their “reactions”). After all, Google wanted this same real estate to get eyeballs to their own services. That was almost the whole point behind Android to begin with… So Google too, will probably be hoping Facebook Home doesn’t succeed.
Would love to hear your thoughts.