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.
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.