Facebook is first brand into the mobile skin game

5 April 2013 by Steve Blum
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Sometimes innovation only needs to be skin deep.

Facebook Home is a new kind of threat to Android and a new kind of opportunity for mobile entrepreneurs. It’s middleware that’s downloaded onto select – for now – smartphones and acts as the top skin of the user interface. Instead, for example, of seeing the standard lock screen, users see their Facebook feed, constantly updated.

Android apps are still there, if you dig down. But if you just go with the flow all you see is what Facebook pushes to you. Which doesn’t necessarily have to be your feed. It could be any digital service or app that Facebook – or you, presumably – wants to inject.

Facebook Home might push Google’s suite of apps and services to the back of the smartphone bus. Long term, though, it could make Android itself unnecessary.

A raft of alternative mobile phone operating systems has floated onto the market this year. Tizen, Firefox and Ubuntu are the chase group. There’s no high level technical reason Facebook Home couldn’t overlay those operating systems too, making the underlying OS irrelevant to end users.

To be fair, web browsers offer a contrary example. Twenty years ago the hope was Java applications would run inside browsers, rendering Microsoft and others irrelevant. Didn’t happen, but it did add a subtle seasoning of fear to the competitive stew.

Facebook is walking point on smartphone middleware, but there’s no particular reason it has a lock on the market. The Facebook brand is a friendly, mass market way to introduce the idea. Once consumers are over that conceptual hurdle – I don’t think it’ll take long – there’s no barrier to carriers, other social networks or, indeed, pretty much any other brand doing the same thing. (I’m assuming Facebook can’t patent the fundamental idea of skinning a mobile OS, but that might be a tall assumption in our litigious world.)

HTML5 was supposed to be the grand unifier of the smartphone OS universe, and it still could be. Branded middleware can do it today.