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Facebook app takes over Android phones

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg  introduced  Facebook Home in Menlo Park, Calif., on Thursday.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook Home in Menlo Park, Calif., on Thursday.

In a bid to establish Facebook Inc. as a major force in mobile computing, the company Thursday unveiled new software that would put its popular social network front and center on millions of phones worldwide.

The app, called Facebook Home, appears to be a frontal assault on archrival Google Inc., which makes the Android operating system now used on most of the world’s smartphones.

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Facebook Home seizes total control of the phone’s screen so that when users power up the phone, the home screen is given completely over to their Facebook news feed page, with the latest photos and messages. All other apps are hidden from view, including those popular Google services and even the device’s basic phone functions.

“The home screen is really the soul of your phone,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as he introduced Facebook Home at the company’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters on Thursday.

And dominating that home screen is crucial to Facebook, because mobile devices will soon supplant desktop computers as the world’s most popular way to get online, according to a report from widely followed technology analyst Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley.

Facebook Home’s other key feature is an upgraded instant messaging function called “chat heads.” When a user gets a message from a Facebook friend or through the phone’s text messaging system, the sender’s image appears in a small icon. The user can respond to the message without leaving the app he was already using. Also, users can carry on chats with several people simultaneously.

Facebook Home will run exclusively on Android phones and will be available April 12 on a handful of devices, including the popular Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II phones by Samsung Corp. of South Korea. In addition, Taiwanese phone maker HTC Corp. will introduce the HTC First, a phone designed from birth to feature Facebook Home.

Over time, the new software will appear on a growing roster of new Android phones, but it is unclear whether Facebook Home will work with millions of older phones.

Also unclear is the impact of Facebook Home on the phone’s battery life, as the app will be constantly downloading Facebook images and message and spooling them onto the screen in an ongoing slideshow.

“We’ve designed the experience with battery life in mind and have optimized the app to have minimal additional battery impact,” a Facebook spokesman said.

Facebook’s capture of the phone’s home screen is possible because Google created Android as an open operating system, so designers can modify it with no restrictions.

“This Facebook was able to do entirely independently, without even talking to Google,” said Jan Dawson, chief telecom analyst at Ovum, a technology firm in New York.

Other leading smartphone operating systems — such as Apple Inc.’s iOS software for the iPhone, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone 8, and BlackBerry’s BB10 software — are controlled by their creators. Facebook would need permission from each company to create similar apps for their phones.

Roger Entner, tech analyst at Recon Analytics in Dedham, said that if it catches on, Facebook Home could undermine Google’s control of its own operating system.

“The first thing you see is ­Facebook, and people go with what they see,” Entner said.

So Android users may increasingly access the world through Facebook, which offers many Google-like features, including Internet search and e-mail. More visits to Facebook makes it easier for the company to sell digital advertising, its primary source of revenue. But Facebook Home might reduce demand for Google’s services, eating into that company’s ad dollars.

“It’s a bold move,” Entner said. “Facebook has pushed themselves to the front of the queue.”

However, the new app does not seem to worry Google. In a statement, the company called Facebook Home “a win for users who want a customized Facebook experience from Google Play — the heart of the Android ecosystem — along with their favorite Google services like Gmail, Search, and Google Maps.”

Indeed, Ovum’s Dawson predicted that many Android users will not use the feature that gives Facebook control of the home screen.

Dawson said that even though Facebook has a billion registered members, “most people are content dipping in and out of it. They don’t want to live in it.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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