Mark Zuckerberg’s last attempt to overtake your smartphone may have flopped, but that isn’t stopping him from giving it another try. Two years after the ill-fated Facebook Home project was first announced, the company is unveiling another phone-focused initiative today. Say hello to Facebook Hello.
As previously rumored, Facebook Hello is a blue-skinned replacement for the native phone dialer on Android. With it, users can mine Facebook’s social graph for contacts and caller ID details, make calls over Wi-Fi, and easily move their conversations to the Facebook Messenger app, if desired. The app also supports call blocking, and even lets you know how many others have blocked the number.
With Hello, Facebook is taking a much quieter, less ambitious approach to creating what had for years been rumored as the inevitable “Facebook phone.” Instead of building its handsets or even an operating system of its own, the company’s foray into your pocket has focused more on individual apps. Facebook Home, which failed to win over many users, looked like something halfway between an OS and an app–essentially, a Facebook-branded skin for Android devices. When that didn’t fly, Facebook switched to a much more subtle approach: infiltrating your phone by releasing one standalone app at a time, and even providing development and advertising tools for other app developers.
But Facebook isn’t content to steal slivers of your attention span with its social networking apps like Instagram and Facebook proper. Instead, it wants to be at the center of how you communicate with everyone in your life. Its Messenger app, which was splintered off from its core app last year, operates as a supplement to texting for many users. That, combined with the 800 million users of WhatsApp–the chat app Facebook acquired for $19 billion in February–puts the company in charge of routing billions of messages between users every day.
But Facebook also knows that there’s still a “phone” in “smartphone.” Yes, human beings still call each other sometimes, and Facebook wants to be a part of that experience too. With its trove of social data, the company is uniquely positioned to enhance what has become the most boring part of our mobile devices.
Things like more detailed contacts and Facebook-powered caller ID are a plus for consumers, but what’s in it for Facebook? Why do any of these tech giants build software and give it to us for free? It’s more data for them, of course. That, and it puts Facebook branding in front of users for just a few more seconds of the day. In an age when Google and Apple already control so much of the mobile experience–and when social competitors like Snapchat are rebuffing its acquisition efforts–every second of our fractured attention spans that Facebook can siphon off is increasingly valuable.