Why Facebook Home will blow Android into smithereens

Why Facebook Home will blow Android into smithereens

Summary: You think Google's Android OS is hopelessly fragmented now? This is just the beginning.

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Yesterday, Facebook announced its Home for Android, their next-generation client software for Google's mobile OS, which will be avaliable for download shortly on a select number of devices using Google Play on April 12.

It was originally anticipated that Facebook was going to announce an Android phone of its own design or a device partnership. But what the company really wants to do is make all Android phones a Facebook phone.

This is certainly an ambitious plan for The Social Network. Android is the most popular mobile operating system, and it makes sense for the company to try to grab as much land and end-user mindshare for itself using existing devices as much as possible.

While it may not have been Facebook's actual intention, Home for Android is really just a fragmentation grenade. 

fragment-grenade-facebook

The Android operating system has been plagued with fragmentation ever since the 2.x branch of the mobile OS was released on multiple carrier devices.

The transition from 2.0 "Eclair" to 2.x  "Froyo", to 3.x Honeycomb" and 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich", and most recently, both iterations of 4.x "Jelly Bean", as well as all patch iterations and dot versions in between, has left a scattered landscape of devices among many carriers and OEMs in various states of OS upgrade version malaise.

This has created problems for Android developers when coding applications, and when they test against different versions of the OS and different target devices.

The introduction of multiple versions of Amazon's Kindle Fire, as well as the Android Dalvik 2.3.3 port running in BlackBerry OS 10 has further complicated this situation by creating additional "Forks" of the Android OS, which have their own unique application issues that developers need to address.

Taken at face value, Facebook Home is not a fork of Android. In many ways it is no different from the overlays that Motorola has used in their Motoblur Android phones, that Samsung has done with their customized TouchWiz Nature UX on the Galaxy S phones, and even what Amazon has done with their own custom UX overlay on top of standard Android.

There are dozens of such 3rd-party overlays or launchers, which you can purchase from the Google Play store today, that end-users can use to customize their device, and give it a completely different look and feel from stock Android. So in that same sense, Facebook Home is harmless.

But I don't expect Facebook Home to stay harmless for very long. A fragmentation grenade is also harmless as long as the arming pin stays put. Pull it out, different story.

To get value out of Facebook Home, the company is almost certainly going to want to monetize it, and that means processing payments for in-app purchases outside of Google Play or introducing their own app store.

If that happens, Google will throw Facebook Home off the Play Store as either one of those actions will violate the terms of their Developer Distribution Agreement.

Additionally, should Facebook choose to monetize Home for Android with advertisements, there are any number of land mines the company can step on under Google's Developer Program Policy that will get them thrown off Google Play as well. 

If Facebook Home for Android gets thrown off Google Play — a fate which I believe to be inevitable — then Facebook will do precisely what Amazon does with their own Appstore for Android today, which is to allow end-users to sideload it.

I believe it is highly unlikely that Google will prohibit sideloading of all apps. But Google's OEM partners, particularly Samsung, who is evolving on a divergent path from vanilla Android to begin with by having all of their own value-added apps that replace core functionality in the Google version, will not want Facebook to override the default user experience. 

As a result of this, I expect Samsung at some point in the future to rely entirely on its own app store for Android, and will diverge from Google's OS and become a legitimate fork. We might even see Samsung use Android Dalvik for application compatability in Tizen and become a hybrid OS, like BlackBerry 10.

This is how the road to fragmentation hell is paved.

Amazon will also almost certainly go beyond overlays and become a legitimate fork with its products because it's obvious that they have airs for the smartphone market as well, now that they have hired former Windows Phone executive Charlie Kindel.

Samsung and Amazon will almost certainly introduce new libraries and new APIs in order for developers to take advantage of the distinct features of their respective Androids. And Facebook Home, as it evolves, will also extend its tendrils into the OS in the very same way.

This is how the road to fragmentation hell is paved.

LG will not want to anger Google, and will not preload or enter any sort of partnership with Facebook or a wireless carrier that wants it.

Because it is the least influential of the Android OEMs and will want to maintain its position as the premier Nexus handset OEM, LG may also enact policies on its software that prevent Facebook Home from being installed.

In fact, it would not surprise me for Google to regard Facebook Home as malware and prevent it from being sideloaded on all Nexus-branded products as well.

And if Google and Samsung both end up in a full-out war with Facebook over APIs and OS extensions and such, you can expect that Facebook will retaliate by turning off access or restricting the way its Graph API can be used by non-Facebook mobile software. We saw these API restrictions happen with 3rd-party Twitter clients; for Facebook to do this as well sometime in the future is not a huge stretch of the imagination.

This leaves us with the other fish, such as HTC, ZTE, Lenovo, and Huawei.

HTC, which is undergoing tremendous financial stress at the moment, will probably do anything to distinguish itself and pull away from the precipice, so carrier preloads of Facebook Home, such as on the recently anncounced AT&T "HTC First" device, are going to be its standard operating practice going forward.

It would also not surprise me to see Facebook take a future stake in the beleagurered smartphone maker in order to preseve a place for their software on a flagship device, much like Google now does with LG on the Nexus 4 and Asus on the Nexus 7 tablet.

ZTE, Lenovo, and Huawei service primarily a domentic market in China, and will run their own weird domestic builds of Android with state-approved social networking software to keep the Chinese government happy. It's unlikely Facebook Home will see much traction there at all.

This leaves us with no less than four, five, or six distinct forks of Android. Google as represented on Nexuses or Google Experience devices, Amazon, Samsung, HTC/Facebook, and whatever weird beast ends up running for domestic Chinese use. And BlackBerry 10's Dalvik implementation.

The future of the Android developer ecosystem is fiefdoms controlled by powerful warlords.

If you thought Android was fragmented now, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.

Is Facebook Home for Android a potential fragmentation grenade for the popular mobile OS? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Android, Google, HTC, Mobile OS, Samsung, Smartphones, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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235 comments
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  • Is Android Fragmented??

    On the one hand we have one lot of Android-haters saying the devices are all the same, with no genuine innovation. On the other hand, we have the SAME lot of Android-haters saying that Android is "fragmented", that the devices are too different from each other, there's too much variation and too much choice.

    Now, these people are lying out of one side of their mouths, but which side?
    ldo17
    • Not mutually exclusive

      I like android, but I don't see how these things are mutually exclusive. The bulk of android phones *are* "me too" derivatives with no differentiation. There are notable high end exceptions obviously, but its ridiculous to suggest that at the low to mid end the devices aren't fully commoditized

      At the same time there clearly *is* fragmentation since there is no compelling requirement for any OEM or carrier to provide upgrades and the OS steadily moves forward. Whether or not this fragmentation has material impact is debatable, but again to suggest it doesn't exist is ridiculous.

      You can have a see of boringly similar physical devices all running different versions of an OS. Why is that an unusual concept? Most Android evangelists (and its usually the evangelists who start seeing "haters" around every corner), focus on the few marquee devices and use those to define their view of the overall platform. Analysts and anyone else attempting to be neutral needs to look at the entire ecosystem and not just focus on a handful of high end Samsung and HTC devices.
      mlambert890@...
      • Re: boringly similar physical devices all running different versions

        If different versions of the OS aren't important enough to lift the devices above the "boringly similar", then they can't be a significant contributor to "fragmentation", now, can they?
        ldo17
        • Eh?

          Consider the following real situation - the same physical phone hardware, sold through different carrier networks, can be running different OS versions, and in a lot of cases it is the mobile phone carrier that dictates if available OS updates are rolled out.
          And by different versions, I mean different point releases, not even a major version like Ice Cream Sandwich.

          For anyone who thinks this is a non-issue dreamed up by iPhone fans, try developing a mobile web app dependent on SVG graphics - worked fine on pre-iPhone Nokia smartphones (which is what we used and were the only game in town if you wanted a phone with a proper browser, works fine on all iPhones, but may or may not work on any given Android phone.

          Now, if you look into the Android source, you would see that having SVG support in the browser was simply a flag. If you enable it, the browser would take up more memory so I can see why it was disabled in many cases - but the point is this utterly trivial change in a single feature, irrelevant to most people, caused us a huge headache.

          It doesn't need to be a significant change to cause fragmentation issues. In some ways, it's easier to deal with the big changes - you simply ignore new APIs and develop for your lowest common denominator. What causes problems is when existing APIs change behaviour, and bugs specific to single point releases, if the customer is unlikely to upgrade.
          JulesLt
          • "Boringly similar devices running all different versions" is better than...

            I keep reading articles like this. I don't know why. One week, it is someone writing this about Linux, and the next it is someone writing it about Android. It is not hard to realize why when one counts the number of Microsoft ads on this site. I wonder what some of you would say with respect to the different races of human beings in the world, were they computing devices instead of living organisms? "Oh, there are too many different appearances in the world, so we should just all look the same." My fiance is Chinese, and her mother reacted in that way to my photo - I, by the way, am about a foot taller than her, have longish 'strawberry blonde" (as it is called by some) hair, and weigh about 100 lbs more than my fiance. Her mother's words were, roughly translated by my fiance, "Aaah! Too different!" So, if I look so different to my future mother-in-law, what should I do to marry her daughter? Shorten myself, dye my face and hair, and drop half my body weight? None of these things is going to make me the same. Let's take a look at the other side of the device industry, shall we?

            Microsoft has a pitiful operating system called Windows Phone. It sucked from day 0. They are trying to run the same boring code on multiple devices, just as they did with computers. Their approach has been to write code that did not work on any device, but make it work equally badly on all devices, thereby lowering them all to the same common denominator. When you eliminate the 'bells and whistles' of a device in order to comply with software written for inferior hardware, you get Windows Phone. Let's not forget, however, that there are still people out there using Windows 3.1 computers, Windows 98 machines, and so forth because they either cannot afford to upgrade or replace their computers, or they don't really need a new computer. The same holds true with phones. Believe it or not, I have run into two or three people who still rock their flip phones because they don't want or need a smartphone. Me? I am running an iPhone 4, but that is only because of the app-and-content-lock-in. If someone were to make an app for the Android that will allow me to run iPhone apps and iTunes content on an Android device, I would switch in a day and a half. I am too busy to write that app right now, but maybe in a few weeks...

            My point is that maybe the Vulcans have it right. "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" is what makes this universe operate. So your phone is running an older version of Android and cannot be upgraded. Big deal. I have computers that run Windows 98, Vista 64-bit, XP, and various versions of Linux. One of my Linux computers runs a 2.2 kernel still because it has no PCI bus, so why bother with 2.4? True, that one is my fishtank, and I will need to upgrade it soon to turn that 486 board into a part of a computer desk - made from recycled computer parts - but for now, it runs fine as-is.
            Garry Hurley Jr
          • Funny how you had to make this article about MSFT

            At least enough to spend a whole paragraph bashing MSFT. AND if you think ZDNET is bias to MSFT you obviously don't read it often. AND your insinuation that you see MSFT ads and to you that indicates a bias based on ad spend you know nothing or very little how Google makes it money.

            While I agree different doesn't equal bad and in many cases different is good. However I think you miss the point of fragmentation within a particular OS and it's impact on developers and consumers. As already mentioned, with a very few notable exceptions Android is a cheap way for a handset maker to get a device into as many hands as possible. Nothing wrong with this strategy because in the end the handset makers don't really care about the OS on their phones, but rather how many handsets they can sell. Same goes for the carriers...the more handsets they sell the more activations they get. The only ones who care much about the OS are the developers (they want ease of development and broadest distribution) and consumers who simply want their favorite apps and a device that meets their needs...and some want simply the coolness factor.
            smfrazz
          • Jason Perlow is currently a Microsoft employee (see "About Jason Perlow")

            Microsoft has an equity stake in Facebook and is a business partner of Facebook's.

            Google is a competitor of Microsoft's and Android is a Google product.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • Your point?

            is...what exactly?
            goombawa
          • What's The Point Of Voting?

            RHM had 16 votes. You, goombawa did too. I voted. Yours became 1 vote only, no longer 16 that should have become 17.
            Not enough Flags to account for an adjustment. You both having 2 each.
            What's going with ZDNet's malfunctions?
            PreachJohn
          • Just Realized- Each Post Has 16 Votes

            That's the malfunction. ZDNet needs to fix many things. But there is no Contact for Feedback available. For the many technical glitches extant.
            PreachJohn
          • Concurrency

            Does a flag reduce the vote? If that is, then what happens is that you (1)Load the comments page seeing 16 votes, (2)16 other people then flag, bringing it to 0 but you don't see because it does not auto-update, (3)You vote, and your 1 plus the current 0 makes 1.
            fifidonkor@...
          • What does that have to do with anything?

            This article has nothing to do with Microsoft at all. So again, what's your point? Nevermind! I already know it.
            jhammackHTH
          • The Fox News of Tech

            Now I recall why I don't bother reading many ZDNet articles any more.

            Facebook Home will not blow Android to smithereens; carriers (combined with complacent manufacturers) will, if they continue business as usual.

            Home is a launcher...on an otherwise stock build of Android. FB has committed to monthly updates of the app, so why could they not push a system update when the code is available as well? Oh yeah. The carriers. At least in this case, the OS skin isn't under development to the same depth as Sense and TouchWiz. The launcher is the skin. At least it isn't Gingerbread - or even ICS.
            Joshua Talley
          • Fragmentation—yes!

            The reason why it's a problem, as has been stated correctly in the article. Is because Facebook is as committed as Google is to grabbing g a bigger audience for its services. Both companies make almost all of their sales ans profits from advertising, over 90%.

            If Facebook can succeed in luring Android users from Google's services onto their own, Google will suffer. This will fork Android, because people will buy phones that can run Facebook's overlays rather than those that can't. There will be different services on the phones. And it's certainly possible that Facebook will have a store of its own. Facebook users may not care about what's available from Google if they can get what they want from Facebook.

            This puts google on the horn of a dilemma. If they do ban the app from Google Play, they will be seen as not being open. If they don't, they could lose billions in advertising dollars, music, movie, and app sales.

            This could get really nasty.
            melgross
          • People running Windows 3.1?!!

            Yeah, I'd like to see that!!
            GoPower
          • ROTFLMAO!

            It's obvious that this simple minded cretin has never even touched Windows Phone. There is absolutely nothing pathetic about WP8. It is damn good. Everything you said about WP8 is complete BS, and you prove your ignorance and stupidity. I also laugh at the vitriol towards Microsoft, especially considering this article has nothing to do with them.

            But by all means, rage on oh clueless one. It's hilarious watching you implode.
            jhammackHTH
          • different human races

            Let's face it, you and your fiancee are biologically compatible. This is all that matters. If you both were computers, you would be running the same OS.

            "Incompatibilities" between people do not come from the different races, skin colours, hair colours, weight etc, because those often are varying within the same race too. Differences come mostly form different culture and traditions. That is more or less how one Android differs from another -- you have no choice, but settle for the lowest common denominator. Which is not helping development... Or, you end up with fragmentation, just as it happens with humans -- one district with one culture, another with completely different.

            Just accept, that it is all normal.
            danbi
          • Humans to OS???

            You were using the illustration of different looks of human beings and comparing that to phones and that is a big stretch. Humans use the same operating system so that we are all compatible even though we do not look alike. Phones, computers, etc. on the other hand are not all compatible. You can not take the OS out of one device and implant it into another device that is set up differently to make it operate that same as the original however you can take a heart from a Oriental person and put it into a Caucasian and expect it to operate as the original. You could argue compatibility if you will be we will stick to the comparison you gave.
            tom_268@...
        • Distinction without a Difference

          The fact that there are differences can be a liability. Differences in UI, for example, detract from platform since there's now an implicit learning curve for each different version - but they all may be similar in functionality and "boringness".
          Marshall119
      • You seem to misunderstand

        the fundamentals of OS/Skins/Apps. A different manufacturer skin does not create fragmentation in the real sense, no matter how much the isheep preach it. An S3 will run the same apps as a HTC1, albeit the UI may look slightly different and the S3 has a lot more features specific to samsung. That's differentiation, not fragmentation.
        There is fragmentation, it's 4 and below 4 but talk of massive fragmentation (and the end of android as a result) is just BS from people that often should know better.
        Little Old Man