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Facebook unveils software that transforms Android devices

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MENLO PARK, Calif. — Mark Zuckerberg has set into motion his most ambitious plan yet to make Facebook Inc. the world’s dominant form of communication.

Facebook’s chief executive on Thursday unveiled Facebook Home, software that transforms smartphones and tablets into devices ruled by the giant social network. It digitally shoves aside every other app on the device and allows Facebook to take over the home screen with status updates, photos and messages.

For years it was rumored that Facebook — spurred by a firestorm of doubt about its ability to make the business leap to mobile devices — would design and manufacture its own phone. In fact, it has done something far more audacious: Quite literally, Facebook is going to try to turn every Android phone and tablet on the planet into a Facebook device.

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“We are not building a phone, and we are not building an operating system,” Zuckerberg said at a packed event at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. “But we’re also building something a whole lot deeper than just an ordinary app.”

Consumers who have one of six Android phones can download Facebook Home starting April 12. A tablet version of the service is to be rolled out later.

Facebook is also working with manufacturers to preload Facebook Home on handsets. HTC is rolling out the inaugural device, a touch-screen smartphone called the HTC First, which goes on sale next week for $100.

The social network company is targeting Google Inc.'s Android, which has surpassed Apple Inc.'s iOS to become the No. 1 operating system for smartphones around the world. Last year about 44% of smartphone users in the United States, nearly 53 million people, had Android devices, according to research firm EMarketer Inc. This year, more than 64 million people in the U.S. — 46% of U.S. smartphone users — will carry Android phones, EMarketer estimates.

It’s a major reinvention of Facebook’s business to focus on the huge number of consumers who access the service from mobile devices. That has caused some wariness that Facebook’s ambitions for Android could make one of the Internet’s most powerful companies too powerful.

“If the Internet is in someone’s hand, it’s a lot easier to sell them on Facebook. What Facebook is doing is replacing ‘Internet’ with ‘Facebook,’” said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “It’s putting Facebook in people’s hands. It’s Facebook first, not Internet first.”

Concern is mounting over Facebook’s already iron grip on the most intimate details of people’s lives. But some analysts question whether consumers — especially those who have expressed Facebook fatigue — will download the new software rather than just use the Facebook app to get the latest updates from friends.

“The big question is how popular this is going to be,” said Greg Sterling, contributing editor for the website Search Engine Land. “Are people going to want this, or will they feel the Facebook app is enough?”

JPMorgan Chase analyst Doug Anmuth said Facebook Home probably will increase how much time mobile users spend on Facebook and how engaged they are in the service.

Other analysts poured cold water on the notion that the software will be a game changer for Facebook.

“There’s a small subset of people who are so heavily dependent on Facebook and will go out and get it,” Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser said.

Even die-hard Facebook users aren’t sure. Matt Canzoneri, 23, director of business development for a start-up, says he’s an avid Facebook user, spending an hour or two on it every day, keeping up with his 1,200 friends.

Facebook Home turns the phone’s home screen — what Zuckerberg calls the “soul” of the device — into “Cover Feed,” a constant flow of Facebook updates similar to the social network’s News Feed. It also highlights a shortcut to Facebook’s messenger service that it calls “Chatheads.”

“It’s a really cool idea — I’ve wanted something like this. It lives right in the screen,” Canzoneri said.

But he’s not sure he’d be willing to give up his iPhone 4S.

“I would, if it wasn’t going to be such a pain to switch from Apple. If they would import my contacts, my apps, my data, then I would definitely think about it,” Canzoneri said.

Another factor to consider: Facebook Home will be free of advertising to begin with, but Zuckerberg said he expected advertising would eventually be integrated.

Facebook’s director of mobile engineering, Cory Ondrejka, said he’s convinced that Facebook users will flock to Facebook Home. Nearly 70% of Facebook users check the service on mobile devices, and 157 million of Facebook’s more than 1 billion users access the service only on a mobile device.

“Mobile users are Facebook users,” Ondrejka said in an interview. “Now you can turn on your phone and it’s all right there. You don’t even have to open Facebook.”

Ondrejka also sought to quash concerns that Facebook Home will give the company even more access to sensitive personal information about its users, saying the software does not collect any additional information than the Facebook app does.

For Facebook, the launch marks the most important development yet in an ongoing transformation from a company that caters to desktop users to one that is trying to build its future on mobile devices.

An avalanche of negative publicity accompanied Facebook’s disastrous initial public stock offering nearly a year ago as anxious investors wrung their hands at Facebook’s slow start in the rapidly growing world of mobile devices.

Mobile is the most crucial challenge for Facebook. The company aspires to be the social operating system for the Internet but it does not control the software on smartphones like Google does with Android and Apple with iOS. Last year Facebook struck a partnership with Apple to integrate Facebook into iOS.

Unlike Apple, Google allows apps to take over the home screens of devices running its operating system. Google has built Android on a philosophy of openness, letting other companies build their futures on its software. Anyone can customize the software. Amazon.com Inc. took advantage of that, creating its own version of the Android mobile software on its Kindle Fire tablet.

Now Google finds itself under threat from one of its chief rivals. If popular, Facebook Home could steal some of Google’s thunder and take some of its momentum on mobile devices, analysts said.

Wall Street viewed it that way. Facebook shares rose more than 3%, at $27.07, while Google shares fell more than 1%, to $795.07.

Asked whether he was worried that Google would change the rules of openness on Android in response to Facebook Home, Zuckerberg said: “Anything can change in the future, but we think Google takes its commitment to openness in this ecosystem really seriously.”

He added: “It would have to be a complete 180 in their philosophy of openness to the community.”

Google downplayed the threat.

“The Android platform has spurred the development of hundreds of different types of devices. This latest collaboration demonstrates the openness and flexibility that has made Android so popular. And it’s 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,” the Internet giant said in an emailed statement.

But Search Engine Land’s Sterling said the threat is very real. Android, which debuted five years ago, has given Google a competitive advantage in mobile. More than 750 million Android mobile devices have been activated to date, more than the number of devices powered by Apple’s iOS. Facebook’s move could siphon users from services that generate advertising revenue for Google.

“Facebook Home buries Google search box, apps and branding. You still have access to it, but it’s not top of mind,” Sterling said. “It inverts the relationship between Facebook and Google.”

Even before Thursday’s announcement, Facebook had come roaring back from growing doubts about its staying power with consumers on mobile devices and initial qualms about its slow ramp-up of its mobile business. Flurry, which measures the use of apps on smartphones, said this week that Facebook has 18% of the time U.S. consumers spend on smartphones, an average of more than 28 minutes a day.

Facebook started showing mobile ads to users last year and has made significant progress. EMarketer estimates that Facebook will earn $1.5 billion in mobile advertising this year, more than double last year.

Guynn reported from Menlo Park, Chang from Los Angeles.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

andrea.chang@latimes.com


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