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Facebook Home: Why Google and Microsoft should be worried

On Thursday, Facebook unveiled an Android home screen replacement called Home. In the same fell swoop, Facebook also released its first smartphone – the HTC First – and declared war on both Google and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. For Facebook, where mobile has always been its weakest link, yesterday was a very big day indeed.

Facebook Home is essentially an Android app that replaces your current home screen. This might not sound all that exciting from the outset, but just think about it for a moment – think about how often you look at your smartphone’s home screen. You will see Facebook Home every time you unlock your phone, every time you launch an app, every time you try to make a call or send a text.

At a glance, Facebook Home will start scrolling through your news feed, each status update overlaid on a full-screen photo – and if you have an actual Facebook phone (the HTC First), Home will also act as the Android notification tray (missed calls, texts, push notifications from other apps, etc).

As you can imagine, Home also makes it very easy to post status updates and photos – just drag your portrait up and the App Launcher appears, which is basically the standard Android app launcher, but with Status, Photo, and Check-In buttons at the top. You can customise which apps appear in the App Launcher, and add more screens if you have lots of apps.

Dragging your portrait left opens up Facebook Messenger, and dragging it right switches to the last app you used. This enables a neat workflow: Open an app, pop back to the home screen to check Facebook, and then simply swipe right to continue where you left off. This definitely beats pushing-and-holding the home button (the Android default app switcher).

The killer feature of Facebook Home, though, is Chat Heads. You can drag Chat Heads anywhere on your phone’s screen, and tap them if you want to open a chat window. These Chat Heads and chat windows float on top of other apps; you don’t have to switch to Messenger to chat to friends. You can carry on a conversation while surfing the web or playing Angry Birds. Very, very cool. (For more details on exactly how Facebook Home handles, see our hands-on preview).

The long and short of it is that Facebook Home turns Android into a people-first experience. This won’t be for everyone, but for anyone who primarily uses their phone to keep in touch with friends and upload photos, Facebook Home probably sounds like your idea of heaven. Remember, Facebook has over 1 billion monthly active users, with 680 million of those using Facebook mobile products. These users upload around 500 million photos per day, many of which are uploaded directly from smartphones. If you don’t like the idea of a people-first smartphone, you are probably in the minority.

With Facebook taking over the home screen, and thus a large proportion of the overall experience, where does this leave Android and Google? Well, for a start, the Google search bar that adorns almost every Android home screen is gone. It isn’t entirely clear if widgets work with Facebook Home, but they probably don’t, therefore ruling out a lot of widgets for Google’s other products. The Facebook Home App Launcher lacks a link to the Google Play store, as well.

The other victim of Facebook Home will be Windows Phone. One of WP8’s strongest suits is deep social integration, with in-your-face Live Tiles providing constant updates and the ability to open chats from the home screen. If you were thinking about picking up a Windows Phone for its social capabilities, now you’d probably be better off getting an Android with Facebook Home (remember, Windows Phone still doesn’t have Instagram, too). I wonder how Microsoft, with its big block of Facebook stock, feels about Facebook Home. The only consolation, I suppose, is that Windows Phone doesn’t really have any market share to lose.