Android this week: Facebook Home phones, software, privacy and fragmentation potential


Credit: Om Malik

Another tech giant is building off of Google Android(s goog), using the platform to expand its potential influence. Facebook(s fb) didn’t introduce its own phone, but instead debuted Facebook Home software and a partner handset with HTC. The HTC First has mediocre specifications and will cost $99 with contract on AT&T’s(s t) network when it launches on April 12. Facebook Home will appear in the Google Play store that same day, but only for five current Android phones initially.

Will people install it? Out of 622 GigaOm readers that responded to our poll asking that question, 63.02 percent said no, although 21.54 percent said they will at least try it. I certainly will install it, but mainly for work and testing purposes.

Facebook Home screenFacebook Home will appeal to those who spend more time in Facebook apps than in any others. The home screen shows updates from friends and can easily be liked with a double-tap. The new ChatHeads feature allows for Facebook messages to appear atop any other open app. And it’s easy to navigate to other Facebook apps.

As a Facebook user, it sounds great except for one thing, at least to me: I want my home screen to have information relevant to me and my environment. Things like local weather, my scheduled events, breaking news and such.

Jason Perlow wrote a thought-provoking piece on the potential fragmentation that Facebook Home could bring. I don’t see as huge an issue, however, as Facebook Home is, at least for now, just a launcher. There are numerous launchers and hundreds of launcher themes available on Google Play but they don’t introduce fragmentation. On your own Android phone, you can choose to install and use, install and disable, or simply not install Facebook Home. Even on the HTC First, you can disable the Facebook Home launcher and the phone will revert to the native Android Jelly Bean look and feel.

HTC First phonePerlow notes that if Facebook adds deeper hooks into the Android system, APIs and its own app store, that could cause problems. I agree but think it’s unlikely to happen. The only companies that completely take over an Android phone are the ones that build their own hardware: HTC, Samsung, even Amazon(s amzn). Even Amazon’s forked version of Android and app store isn’t creating much, if any, of a fragmentation issue for users or developers. We’ll have to see if Facebook Home works out any differently; it’s certainly a situation work watching.

The more immediate issue is one of privacy. My colleague, Om Malik, wrote a fantastic post on greater mistrust of Facebook Home and use of data, so I won’t rehash the privacy concerns. I don’t really see Facebook Home having any greater (or lesser) impact on privacy, however.

Why? Because Facebook already has deep hooks into user data on Android and other devices. Once I can install the Facebook Home software next week, I’ll be looking to see if the launcher has any additional data permissions even though Facebook has already said it won’t. I’ll then compare them to the current app permissions, which include these abilities and more:

  • Access to photos and videos
  • Both approximate and precise location from the phone’s GPS
  • Reading and modifying your contacts, including the ability to see who you contact the most
  • Your phone number as well as the recipient phone number when on a voice call; access to full call logs
  • Getting a list of all other app/data accounts on your phone

I understand Om’s points on privacy in regards to Facebook. I still use the service, however, I think the bigger privacy issue should be focused on Facebook itself, not Facebook Home; unless I see something new in the permissions when Facebook home arrives.

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