launching function from the Home screen, Facebook has wound up
having to reinvent the way you open programs on your phone, and the
result feels like a hack. The black-background screen to the left
lists all of your apps, and scrolls vertically; the nearly identical
gray-background screen lists only your favorites, and scrolls
horizontally. Got it?
Let's hope you don't use Android widgets much, either -- those small windows on your home screen that display news headlines and new e-mail messages. Facebook Home relegates them to Android's traditional home screens. They're still accessible, though buried. (They appear when you tap the More button on the black-background app screen.)
Wallpaper is gone, too; you can't dress up your Facebook Home screen with photo backgrounds of your choice. So is the status bar at the top of the screen that usually displays the time, your signal strength, battery life and other gauges. That bar appears only when you're in other apps.
Home offers a few other Facebook-centric features. For example, that gray-background launcher screen offers buttons that let you write a new status post of your own, take (or choose) a photo to post, or "check in."
Notifications appear in a new style, too. When one of your friends posts an update, or someone comments on one of your posts or sends you a message, a small white bar appears on your Home screen to let you know. You can tap the notification box to view the corresponding post or message, or you can hold your finger down and swipe to dismiss all of them simultaneously.
If you get Home preinstalled on the HTC First phone, other kinds of messages appear that way, too -- notifications about battery life, missed calls, calendar appointments and so on. If you install Home yourself, though, only Facebook notifications appear like that.
The last new Home feature is the endearingly goofily named Chat Heads. When someone texts you or sends you a Facebook message, a round icon appears on your screen, displaying that person's face(it doesn't matter what app you're using). Tap the Chat Head to reveal the new message on a screen that also displays, screenplay-style, all previous back-and-forths with this person.
Chat Heads are fun and effective, but Facebook's engineers appear to have overlooked one small detail: Chat Heads are useful only when you receive a message. How are you supposed to initiate a conversation? For that, you have to duck into your app-launcher screen and fire up the Facebook or Facebook Messaging app, just as you did before you arrived at Home.
Everything in Home is attractive, smooth and quick. At the same time, there's something vaguely incoherent about the whole operation.
First, there's the "what is it?" thing. It's not a phone, not an operating system, not even an app, really. Instead, it's Facebook's commandeering of the whole Android home-base design. And there's a more troubling question: Why?
The Facebook apps for both iPhone and Android are outstanding. They're full-featured, beautifully designed, extremely popular. What does Home add, really? Yes, the ability to see incoming posts on your Home screen; you save one tap. But is it worth losing widgets, wallpaper, app folders and the Android status bar in the process?
Then there's the weird new phone that comes with Home preinstalled -- the HTC First. What's the deal with this phone? It's plastic, dull, uninteresting. It's especially unimpressive compared with HTC's other new phone, the spectacular HTC One.
Facebook's answer to "why" seems straightforward enough; its research shows that Americans spend 25 percent of their cellphone time in Facebook. (Seriously?) Why wouldn't users want to save the trouble of opening an app to stay in touch?
Of course, there may be other answers to the "why" -- like those ads. It probably means a lot to Facebook's advertisers to know that their commercial messages can now appear on your phone's screen even when it's locked.
What's Facebook up to? Is Home part of some elaborate sneaky long- term sideways plot to stab Google in the back and take over the world?
Or is it just a kind of weird, nebulous programming experiment that doesn't entirely succeed?
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