Facebook last night lifted the curtain on its new Facebook Home interface for Android smartphones, and I was able to get my hands on a couple of Home-equipped handsets at the social networking giant's campus - if only briefly.
First, a little housekeeping. I'm calling this a "hands on" review because I managed to tool around on Home with my own fat fingers for a couple of minutes at several demo stations, before being told to keep my mitts to myself by Facebook reps. Turns out the demo portion of Thursday's Home unveiling was meant to be eyes only — some media types I spoke with afterwards managed to spend plenty of time messing around with the interface, others told me they never even touched a phone at all.
The upshot is that my impressions of the basics of Home, its responsiveness and core navigation, are my own. But the deeper dive into how this new "experience" works reflects what was shown to me in eyes-only demos by Facebook folk.
By now, you may know that Home is arriving on 12 April in the US for several Android smartphones, and will be pre-loaded on the new HTC First smartphone. It will be pushed out over the air to HTC's One X and One X+, as well as Samsung's Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2. It will also be available for the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 at some unspecified date, according to Facebook.
Owners of all of those phones except the Home-preloaded HTC First will be prompted next Friday to visit Google Play to download Facebook Home for their devices, a company rep told me. Home will also be made available for other Android phones in the future, but he wasn't sure if the interface would be pushed out to those devices or if users would have to actively seek it out in the Google Play store.
So what's Home like? First of all, you can tell Facebook put a lot of time into the physics underpinning the interface. For one thing, everybody from Mark Zuckerberg on down kept talking about how much work they did to develop Home. But the truth is, maneuvering around on Home is a pleasure once you figure out a few odd but technically awesome functions built into it, like the ability to fling an icon off screen with a flick of the finger.
For example, scrolling through pictures is a truly elegant experience. The demo phones I handled were remarkably responsive, while the transitions between photos was seamless and absent of any jerkiness, stuttering, or degradation whatsoever.
But Home does take some getting used to if you've been relying on an iPhone or even most Android devices. Email alerts, for example, can either be swiped to either side of the screen to be gotten rid of, but you can also drag them down to the bottom to nest them for later perusal. Other little navigation oddities suggest there will be a learning curve for Facebook Home users that might end up dissuading some people from trying it out.
In that vein, I couldn't help but be reminded of the great dilemma for mobile platform builders — make your interface too distinct from iOS and nobody will buy your phones, but copy the iPhone too closely and Apple will sue your pants off.
Home in its initial incarnation has three main parts, which the helpful people at Facebook guided me through in order.
Home and Away
First up was Home's homescreen, which is what you see every time you turn your phone on. It's basically your Facebook News Feed, but made far sparer and prettier than what you currently see with the Facebook mobile app installed, let alone what shows up on a PC when you visit the site.
What you don't see, at least for now, is any ads on Home. That'll be the case for a couple of months, according to Zuckerberg. Eventually Facebook is going to figure out how to monetise its new mobile toy.
As with the photos and stories on traditional Facebook, you can comment on or like the ones that greet you on your Home phone. Notifications, both from your Facebook account as well as system updates, show up here as well.
The particular News Filter item that appears when you turn on a device isn't random, but selected via algorithm by Facebook based on "what you'd like to see," a rep told me. Of course, all the demo phones I saw were loaded with gorgeous sunsets, emerald forests, and the like — I expect my own Home-loaded device would just switch on to poorly spelled political rants from Facebook friends I'm too lazy to block.
The next big thing with the interface is the app launcher. The company built this from scratch, but this is the Home feature that had the fewest Facebook fingerprints on it, at least visible ones. Home's app launcher basically looked like standard Android to me, with familiar, tappable buttons arranged in rows, in other words.
There was something novel about how you can switch from most-used apps to your full app menu and some trickiness to how you move an app from one menu to the other. Unfortunately, my demo-giver breezed through that part and I never got a full grasp of this functionality.
Finally, there's Chat Heads. I'm guessing this proves to be the most popular part of Home and the model for future improvements to the interface. It's a chat management system that accepts SMS messages and Facebook IMs, while running on top of any open apps you have on your phone without shutting them down.
As Facebook is so good at doing, Chat Heads adds extra social oomph to text conversations by giving you a visual of the person your speaking with—a little bubble with your friend's photo or avatar that appears at the top of a chat window. The picture bubbles also pop up on Home's main screen to alert you when someone wants to chat, at which point you use them to open up a Chat Heads screen.
The bubbles then become tabs at the top of chat screens, which let you flit between multiple text conversations easily, simply by tapping on them to switch chats. On normal-sized phone displays, you'll be able to fit five or six conversation tabs on the screen. On phablet-type devices, you can maintain a few more simultaneous chats.
Once you open enough Chat Head windows to go over the screen size-proscribed limit, the chat you've been idle on the longest disappears and has to be relaunched if you wanted to resume that conversation.
Will Facebook Home be a hit? It's initially going out to such a limited number of devices that it seems like this will be a niche product in the beginning. But Chat Heads struck me as an immediately useful tool and possibly enough to make loading the more "meh" parts of Home onto my phone worth it, all by itself.