How Facebook Home Is (And Isn’t) An OS

“We’re not building a phone, and we’re not building an operating system,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the Facebook Home event yesterday. “But we are building something that’s a whole lot deeper than an app. You don’t need to fork Android to do this. You don’t need to modify the operating system really.” But the question isn’t whether Facebook is modifying the Android OS. The real debate is–what do we mean when we talk about an “OS,” anyway?

How Facebook Home Is (And Isn’t) An OS

What Facebook announced marks a subtle but tectonic change: Once an app-maker, Facebook can now own almost the entire smartphone UX without having to own what’s underneath it.


As files move cloud-ward, the “layers” of the operating system have become more independent and distinct, raising fundamental questions about what we mean when we talk about an “OS.” On stage, Zuckerberg noted that Facebook Home is something of a hybrid: He said it behaves “like system software, not an app you run.”

Here are three signs that the “OS” means something different than it used to–and why it may no longer be the locus of platform domination.

Need some background? Read the larger discussion that spawned this article: “The Death Of The File System: What You Need To Know

Yes, Facebook is building an OS: All the parts they need to, anyway. Android is an open-source project that does a terrific job handling most of what a smartphone needs to do–it’s just the presentation layer, where the UX lives, which needs a lot of work. Layering like this is the nature of all sorts of infrastructure. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel, and indeed they don’t need to. As Facebook’s Director of Mobile Engineering Cory Ondrejka said yesterday, Android’s intent system allows developers to make a deep, immersive experience without rebuilding every last thing. “We rewrote core components, and a new UI layer based on physics,” said Ondrejka at the event.

You can conceive of Android (if not the closed-source iOS) as infrastructure if you consider the alternative to Facebook’s approach: Think of how many extant Android devices would have been excluded from Facebook Home’s TAM if the company had rolled out something more proprietary. Abandon bedrock systems at your own risk. Instead, Facebook has focussed on owning three buckets of users’ content: messaging, contacts, and photos.

The “OS” is less relevant than the “presentation layer.” When your files are silo’d inside cross-platform apps and stored in the cloud, all that really keeps you from switching to another device manufacturer (or OS) is not “lock-in” in the traditional sense, but merely your taste in UI.

“Agreed,” Tom Tunguz at Redpoint Ventures told me. (He had authored a relevant blog post last month.) “I think lock-in boils down to what is easiest and works for the consumer,” says Tunguz. “Integration into the OS is the lowest friction, but if an external product is better then that will win.” Compare iCloud and Dropbox for an example, he explains: Just because iCloud is in-house Apple software doesn’t provide it with enough of an advantage to out-compete Dropbox.


Why would a social network want a psuedo-OS? One motivation might be fear; the other might be to sell content. “Facebook might also be an entrant [in the OS market] because of their fear of disintermediation by mobile OS vendors,” says Tunguz. Thinking offensively, an OS (or OS-like layer) may be key to creating lucrative content and app stores of their own. Tunguz adds that these content stores (e.g., Google Play or the iTunes Store) are one major obstacle to major partnerships at this stage. “For software not to become zero sum, consumers would need to use two similar services in parallel or existing competitors would need to partner, neither of which is happening,” he says. “For example: media, movies, TV, and books [are] becoming more and more [silo’d]. Operating systems govern which stores consumers use, and that is zero sum.”

Look for more updates on this conversation in our evolving coverage of The Death Of The File System

[Images: Facebook | Flickr user Simon Powell]

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.