Remember Facebook Home? Of course you don’t, because Facebook’s most earnest attempt at smartphone dominance is now but a distant memory. Despite Home being released just last year, the New York Times is now reporting that the team of Facebook engineers responsible for hammering away on the software for years now has been dissolved, making the product all but dead. But while this may be the social juggernaut's most elaborate stumble, it’s certainly not its first failure.
Facebook Home was essentially a smartphone UI skin for Android handsets. It added a layer of social functionality to the Android experience, but more importantly, it was a way for Facebook to turn millions of smartphones into “Facebook Phones,” without actually releasing a device of its own.
The problem, as Facebook quickly discovered, was that its users prefered to use the social network as an app—a destination to visit, as opposed to a home base. On top of that, the in-your-face social aspects of the interface put non-social apps on the back burner, which wasn’t a great fit for a platform like Android. It’s an operating system that prides itself on letting its users curate their own experience based on what’s most important to them.
The scariest thing about Facebook’s miscalculation of what smartphone users wanted out of Home is that it’s not the first time the company has shown how little it grasps its users’ habits.
Facebook Paper is the most recent example of this. Paper’s promise was that it would transform your social network visits from quick swipes through pointless updates into meaningful stories from people you care about. In practice, the app simply organizes your friend’s updates in a new way.
If there’s nothing special about the posts you normally see in your Facebook News Feed, Paper won’t do anything to change that. The app can’t tell the difference between a touching gallery of your friend’s newborn baby and a photo of the sandwich your cousin had for lunch. With Paper, your social feed is just as obnoxious as it always has been, it just looks different. It’s putting lipstick on a pig… or rather, lipstick on multiple updates from your racist uncle.
Then there’s Facebook Camera, the Instagram copycat that was launched just a month after the company bought Instagram outright. Camera’s functionality was eventually rolled into the main Facebook app and it was recently killed off entirely.
Of course, the most spectacular Facebook failure was Poke, an embarrassing attempt at stealing Snachat’s thunder. Not only did it fail to offer anything new to the self-destructing messages niche, it showed that the company fundamentally misunderstood what made Snapchat cool in the first place; i.e. the fact that it wasn’t tied to a publicly viewable social profile.
Shockingly, after axing Poke, Facebook decided it wanted another go at the disappearing photo category and recently launched Slingshot. Slingshot lets Facebook users send and receive photos and text blurbs which vanish once viewed. The user reviews for this latest Snapchat clone are predictably lukewarm, pointing to yet another amazing blunder from the social giant.
Is there a real pattern here, or is Facebook just incredibly unlucky? There’s no denying that the company has the social experience on lockdown, and while there has been some chatter about its overall growth slowing a bit, Facebook certainly isn’t about to pull a Google+ on us.
It would seem that Home’s failure is part of what’s prompting the standalone app offensive. Home was a collective system, a way to bring every aspect into one place (with all the Facebook branding in the world) and put that one place front and center on your phone. And, as we’re witnessing, it didn’t work. So the new plan is to keep building little pieces of software that are tangentially tied to Facebook, some of them with very little to no Facebook branding (Slingshot looks like it could have been developed by anybody).
Will it work? It probably doesn’t matter all that much. As crazy as it may seem, Facebook can absolutely afford to launch more than a few miserable failures as long as its core offering remains the best in the business. So until a competing social network can somehow unseat the king, we’ll continue to see new Facebook products launched regularly and, perhaps, an equal number of bombs.
Screenshot via Facebook/YouTube