Update: Facebook unveils Android Home screen and app family

Facebook isnt building its own phone, but it wants to make yours more social

No, Facebook is not building its own smartphone.

The company shot down speculation yet again today that it has a phone under wraps. Instead, the social network unveiled a home screen, along with a family of apps, for Android phones.

"There is no phone," said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder and CEO, taking on the latest rash of rumors at the company's announcement today. "We are going to talk about how you're going to be able to turn your Android phone into a great, simple social device."

The Facebook-focused home screen, which will arrive first for smartphones and later on for tablets, has been dubbed Facebook Home. The launcher is designed to work with the apps you already have on your phone, along with Facebook's new line of apps.

Home isn't an operating system. It sits on top of the Android operating system, essentially as a user interface (UI) wrapper.

It's scheduled to be available as a free download from the Google Play Store starting April 12.

"Facebook integration will be great for those who live on Facebook," tweeted Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "For those with lives *beyond* Facebook, not sure about the value proposition."

Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates, agrees, saying Home may really only be exciting to Facebook's power users.

"I'm sure those who spend 90% of their time in Facebook will find it appealing. But I believe that is a small minority," he added. "What Facebook sees as Home, others might see as a Jail - too much control and too many boundaries for them, especially if they are only occasional users of Facebook, which is the vast majority of people."

During a question-and-answer session today, Zuckerberg said Facebook will be dropping ads into Home. That means Home will have multiple benefits for the social network.

First, by having a new venue for ads, Home should bring in more revenue for the company. But possibly even more importantly, Home is about eyeballs. The launcher will be the first thing that people see when they power up their Android phones, and the more time they spend on Facebook properties, the more ads they will see. In addition, from that home screen, users can easily move through a list of Facebook-focused apps.

"Everyone has their phones with them all the time and they just want to know what is going on, no matter where they are," said Zuckerberg, noting that people generally look at their phone's home screen about 100 times a day. "It's just about staying connected with what's going on in your world.... The home screen is really the soul of your phone."

Facebook Home
Facebook today unveiled its new Home app for Android phones.

Home is designed to bring you directly into your social network with a feature called Cover Feed, which replaces a phone's traditional lock screen and home screen. It means the first thing you look at when you pick up your phone is giving you information about what your friends are doing, a family birthday party or your favorite sports team's big win.

"This is a brilliant idea for Facebook users who want Facebook up front in their life," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. "For everyone else, they won't be interested in this full-time commitment& This is a good start for Facebook and this will grow over time."

Chat Heads is a new app that lets you chat with friends even while you're doing other things in your phone.

You could be listening to music or writing an email, and your friend's face will pop up on the screen if he or she is trying to reach you. Chat Heads will offer access to text and Facebook messages.

According to Facebook, Home works on the HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung GALAXY S III and the Samsung GALAXY Note II. Home also will work on the upcoming HTC One and Samsung GALAXY S4.

HTC and AT&T are the first companies working together to deliver a phone with Home. The HTC First, which goes on sale April 12, is available for pre-order from att.com for $99.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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