Hands on With Facebook Home – The Future of Mobile Consumer Interaction?

In Customer Engagement, Customer Experience, Featured on App, Social media, The Mobile Customer by Vaughn Highfield

Hands on With Facebook Home - The Future of Mobile Consumer Interaction?

Facebook, we all know what it is, what it does and how brands and companies can really get the most out of it. We all know that it's got a gargantuan base of active users, as well as a sizeable one of passive ones. Essentially, excluding the slightly different platform of Twitter, there's no other social network you need to be a part of if you want to interact with friends, families and – most importantly – your consumers.

So, with the launch of the Facebook "Phone" on April 12th in the US by AT&T – with a planned Autumn release in the UK and Europe – can Facebook really re-invent the way consumers interact with each other on their mobiles and can it change how your brand interacts and targets consumers? Most importantly of all, is it something people really want to be a part of?

At our secret Total Customer community meet up that took place at the end of April in Soho, I got a chance to go hands on with the HTC manufactured "Facebook Phone" courtesy of CloudTags who were demonstrating their impressive NFC tag software and hardware – of which the HTC First phone makes use of.

First impressions of the HTC First were positive, with it's pleasant feel, reasonably sized screen that felt just shy of 4" or so, and rather appealing pastel case colours – if anything this felt just like the Nokia Lumia range of Windows 8 phones. Except, inside was something else, an Android-based Facebook overlay known as Facebook Home.

Now, this is where things need to be cleared up: Facebook Home is the "Facebook Phone" people have been talking about. There are phones manufactured and pre-installed with Facebook Home, which is exactly what we were using, but – eventually – almost any Android device running Jelly Bean will be able to download and use Facebook Home, converting it into a Facebook Phone of sorts.

Why would a Facebook Home-enabled phone be so appealing to a consumer then? Well, the hardware itself is virtually free. Due to the way Facebook creates advertising, the phone should pay for itself, meaning Zuckerberg and friends can essentially subsidise the cost of phone manufacture – essentially making the cost of a phone contract little more than it would be for a sim-only contract.

That's the ideal, obviously, as for now only the HTC First is manufactured with Home in mind, and therefore features full usability compared to the downloaded app that can be applied to a number of popular Android phones, including Samsung's Galaxy SIII, S4 and Note II.

Using the phone itself is quite pleasant, but it's hard to truly get a grasp of what day-to-day life with it would be like, after all could you really live with living within the walled garden of Facebook? I know I couldn't.

Starting up Home takes you to your lovely desktop where rolling information from your Newsfeed comes sweeping in as it slowly pans across high-resolution images your friends have uploaded. It's hard to imagine quite what this would look like if you've got friends who don't post photos often – or indeed if most of your friends photos are of a debauched night out at university it could just be a never-ending stream of boozed up hounds on your phone's desktop and lock screen. Which isn't something you probably want to deal with in certain situations.

You'll also see floating heads, known as chat bubbles, appear when your friends interact with you and when you decide to open the menu to navigate to other apps, Chrome or the messenger application – which now handles SMS as well as standard Facebook messages.

It's an odd setup, one that will certainly take a lot of getting used to for Android natives – and one that I particularly didn't find overly appealing to use after the freedom afforded to standard Jelly Bean users. But, I can't even get along with Samsung's Android overlay as I prefer the infinitely more flexible pure Jelly Bean interface found on Google's Nexus series of devices.

There is one thing that must be said for the Facebook phone from a user perspective: it's incredibly personal. You're always connected and continually in the loop. It's great for those who are so ingrained in the world of Facebook and friends and can't bare to be one minute away from the social network.

It's also very appealing for advertisers – which is why you or your company may find supporting it very interesting indeed, especially with the growth of mobile consumers. Moving forward it's probably more than likely going to start featuring more Facebook Home specific apps and therefore more opportunities for marketers to jump aboard, but currently its advertising model is rather intriguing.

Making use of GPS to geo-locate a Facebook Home user, using location, keyword searches, Facebook-listed interests and recent status posts or likes by a user of their friends, Facebook Home sends targeted adverts to the phone. These are relatively unobtrusive, slowly sliding in between a couple of photos on your desktop's horizontally scrolling feed.

They could be as simple as telling you that the HMV near you is having a massive sale on your favourite band, film or TV series. Perhaps it's money off at a nearby cinema as they know you love films. You see where I'm going with this, but it could generally be helpful advertising that users may not come to hate.

It's certainly an interesting proposition, and with Facebook's user rate dropping within it's key demographic, Facebook Home could be the thing to help bring them back. But there are currently far too many hurdles in the way. Away from the HTC First, Facebook Home functionality is limited, omitting status updates or notifications from other applications – specifically Twitter and Google + (although who really uses that?). It's also not on iOS and, quite possibly, never will be – which eats into a fantastically huge section of Facebook users within its key demographic range, even if iOS market share is rapidly shrinking to the world of more accessible Android devices.

At least there's one thing that can be said for the HTC First and, in a way, Facebook Home: the NFC connectivity CloudTags were demonstrating works wonders and having a low-cost NFC enabled device should do wonders for the adoption of NFC technology amongst consumers – and therefore retailers.