It’s no Facebook Phone: Home looks nice but could have limited impact

As Facebook (s fb) delves deeper into our online lives and builds an advertising business around the information it collects, what better way to reach consumers than the most prominent screen on the phones in their pockets?

Facebook Android Home CoverfeedFacebook’s Android announcements on Thursday, which essentially create Facebook-centric launchers for Android phones, further underscored that the future of the company is mobile. “Facebook Home” makes some nice UI improvements around messaging, but considering the long-time buzz surrounding the potential for a “Facebook phone,” this particular announcement did not seem revolutionary.

The biggest message from Facebook on Thursday in Menlo Park was was that the company wants to improve our ability to communicate with loved ones on mobile. That’s not exactly a new theme. Facebook’s Home basically presents a package of the company’s apps that users can download from the Google Play store that creates a dominant Facebook home screen of photos and an integrated launcher for apps and notifications on Android. The company also announced an HTC First phone with a deeply-integrated version of Facebook Home pre-installed.

Mobile is where most of the world is headed, as we spend increasing amounts of time staring at our phones and tablets. A company like Facebook, as hungry for user data as any other online advertising business, likes a product like Home because it gives the company greater data about its users. Also, Wall Street has pretty much mandated that Facebook has to make more money through mobile advertising. While ads won’t roll out immediately to the rotating photos on the cover screen, the company didn’t rule it out, meaning it’s probably coming.

But as Om so aptly noted earlier today, people already spend a good deal of time on Facebook on mobile — about 30 minutes per day. But the only people who will use Facebook Home are those who choose it, either by purchasing the HTC First phone through AT&T, or downloading Facebook Home through the Google Play store. It’s not a product that everyone will immediately have to or choose to use, the way the revamped News Feed will shortly roll out to everyone. And it’s certainly not something Apple iPhone users will likely see any time soon.

My favorite aspect of the new features through Android revolved around messaging. Messaging and chat apps on mobile are huge, especially for users in Asia, and Facebook needed to make improvements there to push back the third-party apps encroaching on that space. There’s already a good deal banter on the internet making fun of the “Chat Heads,” which are bubble photos of your friends that live on the screen and show you activity and messages from each person. But as a frequent texter who carries on a variety of iMessage threads at any one time, I might appreciate the ability to conduct chats on top of other apps so you don’t have to stop what you’re doing.

Mark Zuckerberg checks out one of the new phones with the Facebook Home at Menlo Park headquarters.

Mark Zuckerberg checks out one of the new phones with the Facebook Home at Menlo Park headquarters.

Facebook’s business both as a social network and an advertising network completely revolve around sharing, as Zuckerberg said Thursday when he emphasized the importance of a social, connected world. If users stop sharing data with Facebook it will have a problem, so it’s worth asking how Home might encourage people to share more. The revolving cover photos on the homescreen certainly bring photos to the forefront and encourage likes and commenting, which you can do from that screen, and Home’s emphasis on messaging could increase how often people use Facebook Messenger if it’s featured more prominently.

Zuckerberg noted that people check their phone’s lock screens hundreds of times a day, but might only check the Facebook app 12 or 15 times, and Home aims to change that. So Home, if you choose to use it, would have you checking Facebook more often and consuming more visual content. But will it have you sharing substantially more? That doesn’t seem like a given.

Fundamentally, keeping users inside Facebook is great for Facebook (and when the company eventually rolls out ads to the cover screen photos, it could be quite lucrative.) But for Android users who already have the Facebook app and can customize their launchers? There doesn’t seem to be a lot about this announcement that changes that experience.