Home is where the phone is
It hasn’t yet been six years since the start of the smartphone revolution and we’ve already become an “always on” culture. At least, that’s the temptation. Those who submit can be called The Immersives: checking e-mail, keeping tabs on Facebook “friends,” debating on Twitter, snapping photos of food for Instagram. It would be rare if any of us didn’t have at least one toe dipped in the stream.
We are all Immersives sometime: We bury our faces in the small screen while we walk, or come dangerously close to driving blindly into traffic. We can’t get through a meal without virtually leaving the table. We keep our phones on permanent silent to conceal the depth of our addiction. If we even momentarily lose track of our phone, we are as anxious as new parents whose toddler has dipped out of sight.
Immersives are the target audience for Facebook Home, a new version of the social network’s app that was announced this week. Home lives on the front side of the lockscreen — it’s the first thing you see when you pick up the phone. It’s a major release that reveals the extent to which Facebook needs us to stay Immersives to help it meet its bottom line. This decade’s major technological question is: Who’s in control — our phones, or us?
Facebook is the flagbearer of the former. In a press event Thursday to unveil Home, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sought to position this app as a breakthrough for “us.” Smartphones, he said, are designed around apps and not people. This is clever messaging: A smartphone’s customization is all in its apps. We have little control, on any platform, of what our phone serves up for us the moment we pull it out of our pockets.
Facebook Home is perhaps the first of what Wired’s Steven Levy has already coined as the “super apps” — always on, always current, and the first thing you see. Super apps come with an easy sell: If you are immersed in one thing more than others — Zuckerberg says we spend almost a quarter of our time on smartphones on Facebook — why shouldn’t your phone give you the option to put that app on a virtual pedestal.
Facebook’s play for this valuable real estate is a shrewd move — yes, ads are coming — but it comes as a bit of smartphone fatigue has already begun to set in. It ups the ante from an earlier play by Microsoft to open up the lockscreen to user customization: First introduced under Windows 7, Microsoft’s “Live Tiles” are real-time updates to a variety of feeds users can choose and position. But they still fall short of what Facebook is introducing: a fully immersive version of the app itself.
Choice is always nice, but silence can sometimes be golden. Because our phones demand so much attention, many of us are reaching a saturation point. Some of us are becoming Selectives — even taking a vacation from our phones. We are becoming more discerning about what we want to know, and when we want to know it.
Selectives are beginning to make themselves heard. They are the backers of the Pebble smart watch, which puts distance between user and phone. They are fighting for a pair of Google Glasses, a development which pushes the phone even deeper into the background. The wearable tech movement is all about leveraging the power of a smartphone, and making you less a slave to brandishing it.
The stakes are very high — not only for the hearts and minds of those teetering between Immersive and Selective lifestyles but for which of the now four mobile operating systems will dominate. Indeed, Apple, which owns the most closed mobile operating system in the world is even seeking to patent the very notion of lockscreen apps.
For now, the battle to win the attention of Immersives will almost certainly be fought entirely on Google’s Android platform — the most receptive to customization from developers and already the most popular — Apple’s iOS is a close second, with Blackberry and Microsoft lagging far behind.
Google’s and Twitter’s own lockscreen customization is only a matter of time. There’s no reason Twitter can’t “skin” Android phones to be an interactive dashboard. And how far can Google itself be from making its own social network — Google + — the basic infrastructure of phones running its own Android operating system. Of course, for those too impatient to wait, there’s always Microsoft’s middle ground.
The good news is, unlike most wars, everyone can emerge victorious Immersives can choose to drown in their favorite apps, and Selectives can push the phone further and further away. Both types will be in their element.
PHOTO: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive during a Facebook press event to introduce ‘Home’ a series of applications that integrates the Facebook platform into the Android operating system, in Menlo Park, California, April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith