It's really easy to want to hate a phone that is all Facebook all the time, especially when it gives the social network more and more of our data to mine for more ads to put on more prominent screens. Especially when the device itself, a middling (albeit sub-$100) HTC First—to wit, the first of many that will run Facebook's Android-based "Home" software, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at its launch event Thursday—is a a mediocre smartphone that doesn't do anything exceptionally different. The so-called "Facebook Phone" runs a hidden version of Android; after the Facebook front door, it's all the same.
So: Why would anyone want to get into this thing? The techies immediately suggested that people who love Facebook will flock to Home because it's a simpler way to do just that—embrace something they already use on their phones all the time. But what if you're just a casual Facebook browser, not obsessed with every last party photo and not quite part of a generation for whom Facebook messages pre-empt email? Well, there is more than a silver lining to Zuckerberg's most blatant jump into your mobile life: This "Facebook Phone" offers some key user interface experiences that are way better than their counterparts on other Android phones—and even the iPhone.
These little things might not be enough to get you to hand over your data or eyeballs to Facebook, and certainly not to trade in your Apple device for some so-so Android. But the rest of the mobile industry would do well to learn from the truly brand-new things that entered the world today. Let's take a moment to recognize the innovation unveiled Thursday from Menlo Park—even if it was from a guy in a hoodie and not a turtleneck:
Chat Heads: Silly name, smart idea.
Apple may have invented the whole touch screen UI thing, and it might dominate the market with phones and tablets of all shapes and sizes. But Facebook has updated gesture-controlled efficiency by skipping a generation. Yes, all these little floating Chat Heads—actual name, not a bad joke—might make iPhone users jealous.
Instead of having to open and close an application every time someone sends you an SMS or Facebook message, one of those little bubbles—hello up there, Sheryl!—pops up on the side of what you're doing. Your bubble-headed friend's chat shows up with a single tap. Or, you know, you can just ignore the head and keep on doing what you're doing. It's fast. It's smooth. It's more productive than disruptive. These are things you're supposed to say about Apple. Plus if you're chatting with someone and want to help each other, it provides a much faster way to share information, and on the go. And that's something you're supposed to be saying about Google. I haven't tried the phone with my own two hands (launch day is April 12), but those on hand at Facebook HQ Thursday say Chat Heads is "responsive with very little lag" and not too intrusive. Once the heads pile up, you can swipe across to view the entire carousel.
Notifications: Gone in a tap!
The new Facebook software has the same default notifications hub that comes on all Android devices—the pull down one that Apple stole from Google. But rather than having to get rid of those annoying updates from your LinkedIn app with a swipe, Facebook Home more prominently stacks the Facebook happenings you actually care about, and right on the home screen.
Now, that looks a lot similar to the notifications that pop up on any smart phone. But it's very seamless—with or without Chat Heads. How many times have you swiped a notification to get rid of it on my iPhone, only to open some buggy app that never loads? With the Facebook phone, a simple tap rids the screen of an unwanted notification. You can also bundle them all up and dismiss them once and for all. But because it's Facebook, you know, you might actually be interested.
Home's homescreen: Now with a purpose.
So maybe Facebook photos aren't the ideal thing to hover in the background of a phone. (We get enough baby pictures on the actual website, thanks.) The "Cover Feed," as Facebook calls it, allows you to scroll through recently posted images from your Facebook feed, in full bleed and packed with information. That's probably only a minor upgrade for people who constantly use their phone to look at photos on Facebook—or spend too many minutes in bed or on a bathroom line looking at Instagram.
But, imagine if we could put other, more useful things right there on the first stop, for quick access? As of right now, our phone backgrounds serve as high-tech time pieces, which seems a little dated.
All of which is to say, it might not be worth it to get a Facebook phone—maybe for your teenage niece, or something. And it shouldn't be forgotten that, after the unveiling, Zuckerberg said advertising could be coming to the Cover Feed—and no other major phone is that invasive from the "on" button. But no other major phone is this intuitive with the little things. So for a moment, let's appreciate the finer parts of the Facebook phone.