Android and Facebook Home work together, not competitively

How Facebook Home accomplishes its mobile goals without interfering with the Android user experience.

The notion that Facebook Home would smother Android and interfere with Google's services is completely unfounded. Gmail notifications pop through Home’s Coverfeed, Google’s notifications appear normally with a downward swipe, and Google Now can be accessed by pressing and holding the Home button.

Within a few minutes of using Home, it’s easy to understand why Google Chairman Eric Schmidt endorsed it at the Dive into Mobile Conference a few days ago. Schmidt’s remarks were made in response to Microsoft VP Terry Meyerson reportedly alluding to Google blocking the download of Home on the Google Play app store because it was competitive. Schmidt explained:

“[blocking Facebook Home would be] counter to our public statements, policies and religion… this is what Android is about, we are phenomenally happy that people are extending Android in all these ways.”

Yesterday at Facebook’s New York office, Engineering VP Cory Ondrejka echoed Schmidt’s enthusiasm of Android’s open source architecture. Speaking to a small group of journalists, Ondrejka spoke candidly about Home and designing and building products at Facebook. In 18 months, Facebook has progressed from a predominately web service company with a hybrid mobile app to become one of the top “mobile-first” product developers.

Ondrejka said that to accomplish its goal, Facebook had three choices: create a new operating system, fork Android into a separate version like Amazon, or build an extensive Android app. Facebook chose the app alternative because developers could replace the home screen, launcher and other features and still have the reach of the Google Play store to distribute it. The toughest challenge in starting the Home project, according to Ondrejka, was convincing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that developers could achieve Home’s extensive design goals with just an Android app.

When it came to designing the right features for Facebook users, Ondrejka spoke about Android and iOS on a continuum. Although the actual development for these two platforms is very different, Ondrejka spoke of choosing to develop first between the two platforms based on the expediency of getting team feedback to a new design or to quickly get a feature out to users to see how they respond. For example, Chatheads would have been easier and faster to build on iOS. Overall, he implied that Android and Google Play had some time-to-market advantages over iOS and Apple’s App store:

"with Android, you can come up with a crazy idea and just ship it via the Play Store."

Facebook Home won’t reach the iPhone because developers can’t overwrite the iOS home screen. Apparently, though, Facebook version 6 for iOS has benefitted from a combined Home design effort, getting a new feed redesign and chatheads in its recent release.

Speaking about the future, Ondrejka explained that Facebook would add widgets and folders for the new launcher. He also said that once the Home user experience is better understood, there would be advertising on Coverfeed, but video ads would be excluded.

Most interesting was Ondrejka’s account of Facebook’s fast break into mobile development. Facebook has approximately one engineer for every one million subscribers, which is about a thousand developers. To move the development team from web to mobile, Facebook has cross-trained over 600 engineers in both iOS and Android development.

In building Facebook’s first native app, Ondrejka moved software releases to fixed monthly release dates where incomplete code is excluded in order to keep the release date and assure a steady stream of new features delivered to users and more user feedback for improving the design.

The selection of what to build is based on the improvement of social connections and sharing of "social state." Improvements to the social value or UI are the criteria to rank new features.

Facebook is part a small group of companies, along with Amazon, Apple and Google, that provide platforms with huge scale and large cloud-based services serving a range of presentation devices while operationally maintaining high system-wide availability and performance. In the future, this model will become predominant. By necessity, Facebook is experimenting horizontally with cutting edge mobile development, keeping up with the fast pace of mobile innovation while scaling mobile software engineering vertically throughout its platform to support the new capabilities of mobile devices.

Curious Android users who have one of the select smartphones supported by Facebook’s current release of Home or those comfortable with patched software by MoDaCo that works on many Android smartphones should download Home, develop their own opinion through experience, and participate in its evolution.

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