Facebook, man. Unbelievable. Second-most-visited Web site in the world. Frequented monthly by one-sixth of the earth's population. Primary source of news for half of America's young people.
So vast and powerful is Facebook that it didn't seem implausible when the rumors began: Facebook was about to introduce its own cellphone. Look on our works, Apple and Google, and despair!
The rumors were wrong. The new "Facebook phone" isn't a phone. Instead, it's a set of apps for phones running the Android operating system. Starting Friday, you can download them from the Google app store onto certain phones from HTC (One and One X) and Samsung (Galaxy SIII, S4 and Note II). More Android models will be compatible in the coming months, Facebook says. These apps also come preinstalled on the new HTC First, which costs $100 with a two-year AT&T contract.
This software suite, called Home, replaces the standard Home screen and Lock screen of the phone. In their places, what you see is a slowly scrolling parade of full-screen photos from your Facebook news feed. Text-only posts appear, too, using your friend's primary profile picture (cover photo) as the photographic background.
The company says that at the moment, the Cover Feed -- this parade of images on your Lock screen and Home screen -- represents only about 80 percent of what you would see on the actual Facebook Web site.
What's missing? Video posts and ads. Both, Facebook says, are coming soon. Yes, you read that right: the latest billboard for advertising is your own cellphone's home screen. Are you ready for this?
You can have all kinds of fun on the Cover Feed. If the stately scrolling is too slow for your tastes, you can flick to the next photo, and the next, and the next. You can double-tap the screen to "like" a post. You can hold a finger down on the screen to see the entire photo, smaller; big parts of it are generally chopped off in the process of enlarging it to fill the phone's screen. And you can tap a tiny speech-balloon icon to read people's comments, or to leave one of your own.
Facebook correctly points out that this sort of newsfeed screen saver is an excellent time killer when you're standing in line or waiting for someone. At the same time, the Home software replaces the Home and Lock screens that Google or your phone maker designed. Unfortunately, you lose some good features in the process.
For example, for most people, the entire purpose of a Home screen is displaying app icons. But there are no icons on Facebook's Home screens; Facebook thinks you'd rather use that space for reading Facebook updates.
The only icon that appears is your own profile photo. You can drag it to the left to open the Facebook Messaging app, to the right to open the last open app -- or upward to open a grid of app icons on a gray background. Ah, here are the apps. But it's awfully sparse; where are the rest?
They're on a screen off to the left. Swipe your finger to see, on a black background, the usual Android "all apps" screen. From here, you can hold your finger down on a particular app's icon to install it onto the gray-background launcher screen, which can have multiple pages.
If it sounds confusing, that's because it is. In removing the app-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" (announce your location).
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 this way, too -- notifications about battery life, missed calls, calendar appointments and so on. If you install Home yourself, though, only Facebook notifications appear like this.
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.
Is this going to be a new thing, replacing your Home screen with a favorite company's custom version? Will there be a Twitter home screen, a Pepsi home screen, a Justin Bieber home screen?
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 so generic, it should come in a plain white box with that says PHONE on it.
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 we 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?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.