Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the social network’s latest creation, Facebook Home. Though rumors had swirled for years that Facebook was working on its own mobile hardware and software to possibly compete with Apple and Google–Zuckerberg actually began his announcement by joking, “Today, we’re finally going to talk about that Facebook phone”–Facebook Home turned down to be something different. Built on top of Google’s Android operating system, Home is a user interface layer designed to bring social content to the forefront of smartphones.
The experience is a novel one, which makes it all the more difficult to define. Home doesn’t feel as comprehensive as iOS or Android, but it’s far from a simple app experience. As Zuckerberg explained, “We’re building something much deeper than an app. It’s a new category of experiences.” While that loose definition certainly gives Facebook Home a wide range of potential–indeed, it can be installed on a number of Android-compatible devices, downloadable from the Google Play store–it also can create confusion around the product’s purpose and future, especially among average consumers, who are likely to classify devices in terms of Google phones and Apple phones and Facebook phones (and, if the rumors eventually come true, Amazon phones). The fact is, however, Facebook’s intention isn’t to compete with Apple, Google, and Microsoft in mobile operating systems, at least according to Facebook platform director Doug Purdy. “We’re definitely not an operating system,” Purdy told Fast Company in an interview last week at the company’s mobile developer conference in New York City. “We are a layer that’s more than an app but not quite an operating system. I need to come up with a name to describe what we are. The closest thing you could say is that we are the communication infrastructure that allows people to communicate with other people, and that allows applications and brands and advertisers to communicate with people.”
It’s an interesting if not diplomatic perspective, which positions Facebook as an agnostic social networking provider. For example, there were rumors last week that Facebook was in talks to port the Home experience to Apple’s and Microsoft’s platforms, though those reports have since been disputed. “The world is heterogeneous,” Purdy says. “You’re going to change your phone I don’t know how many times, whether Android or iOS. Facebook creates this common channel that spans across all these different things.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Facebook’s long-term aim isn’t to build its own operating system. For one, building its own mobile solution on top of Android is a risky prospect considering the company’s at times strained relationship with Google. Many have wondered how long Google could continue to allow Facebook to co-op its mobile operating system, especially if Home somehow manages to magically eclipse Android in popularity. Microsoft mobile head Terry Myerson recently speculated that “there [is] probably a whole team at Google right now trying to figure out how to lock out Facebook Home.”
Purdy throws water on that fire, and denies any long-term interest in competing with Apple and Google in operating systems. “[Home] is not an operating system,” he repeats. “We don’t want to build an operating system. Apple is really good at operating systems, Microsoft is really good at operating systems, and Google is really good at operating systems. This is about thinking what we’re good at and how we add value. Our aspirations could never be fulfilled by having a single operating system. I mean, how would you get a billion people on the same operating system? It would be very hard, very very hard.”
When I point out that Microsoft, where Purdy worked before Facebook, boasts more than a billion users of Windows, Purdy agrees, but suggests such a feat is no longer possible. “Yes, Microsoft did do that,” he says. “But I think the world has changed in a pretty dramatic way. You have mobile devices, tablets, phones, traditional desktops–and Microsoft is not the predominant operating system on many of those things. We think the world has evolved.”
In that sense, does Facebook Home represent an opportunity to leverage the myriad operating systems in Facebook’s favor? Is co-opting Android a Facebook Trojan Horse strategy?
“I wouldn’t call it a Trojan Horse,” Purdy clarifies. “There’s this multitude of devices, and you need to choose an implementation strategy that makes you get on as many devices as possible. For us, it’s not a question of [developing for] iOS, Android, or Facebook. It’s rather and Facebook. It’s all of these operating systems, and then we bring in the [social] element.”