Closed Facebook mobile launch

Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to turn Facebook into a “mobile first” company faced an important test on Thursday as the company unveiled what was expected to be its own mobile software platform: a version of the Android operating system that puts the social networking service front and centre.

But would it be enough to give Facebook a firmer foothold in a smartphone world increasingly dominated Apple, Google and Samsung? This was our live coverage of the event at Facebook HQ as it unfolded.

We’re waiting for things to get underway. This was our take on what’s at stake today.

Mark Zuckerberg is first up. We’re about making the world “open and connected”, he says. These concepts are “a lot of what makes us human”. 20 per cent of smartphone time is spent on Facebook – add in Instagram, and that comes up to 25 per cent

So… “What if we flipped it around and made our phones designed around people… not apps?”

He’s painting a picture of how people use their smartphones today – you have a few minutes between meetings or waiting for something, you pull out your smartphone and… you have to navigate through a list of apps. Not very human-centric, apparently

“We don’t want to build some sort of phone or operating system that only some people are going to be able to use.” Even doing a really good job of building a Facebook phone might only reach 1 per cent of its 1bn users, he says.

So far, so on message: “We’re not building a phone and we’re not building an operating system.” This is what Zuck has said before

What Facebook is going to do, he says: change the home screen experience. It’s something the average user looks at 100 times a day

It’s a family of apps called… Home. Doh.

It modifies both the homescreen and the lockscreeen. Notifications come in showing the faces of people they’re coming from. The message Zuck is hammering home: It’s about people, not apps

Today, as you message, you switch back and forward between apps. So Facebook has come up with something called “Chat Heads”, a new way to do messaging that works both with Facebook messages and SMS from the phone

Now, a live demo: Coverfeed, which is the new photo-centric homescreen experience. Turn on the phone and you will see a large photograph taking up the screen, with text describing it at the top. The picture changes frequently: see one you like, and you can double tap it to “like”

My colleague @Tim points out: Former CEO of Inq, the Hutchison-backed UK company that made the original Facebook phone several years ago, also sees some similarity.

You can add comments from the lockscreen or see notifications – and then swipe some or all of them away to clear the screen. Apps don’t go away completely -swipe up from the bottom of the screen and a familiar screen of app logos appears

Now on to Chat Heads. The idea is to see messages as they come in without needing to close the app you’re currently in or open another one. The face of the person who has messaged pops up in a corner of the screen: tap it, and a chat windown opens

@Tim comments: The smoother look and feel of Facebook Home shows the influence of Mike Matas , the respected iOS designer whose Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook after making Al Gore’s “Our Choice” iPad app.

Cory Ondrejka, Director of Mobile Engineering, comes on to explain how to get the new Home service. Answer: if you have the latest app, just open it. An install button appears automatically.

It’s only available on phones for now, not tablets. Regular updates will extend the capabilities.

So: it’s not a Facebook operating system, and it’s not a fork of Android.

Facebook Home will be available on April 12th, says Zuckerberg. It will start off on just a few devices that Facebook is supporting.

And finally… He introduces Peter Chou, chief executive of HTC, and Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T, to talk about the first handset to show off the new app. As expected, HTC is going to showcase it on a new handset. The LTE device will cost $99.99.

Zuckerberg wraps up: Only a third of the world is online. In five or ten years’ time, most internet users will never have seen a computer or “the internet” as we think of it today. He adds: “We’re defining, right now, what they see.”

Facebook’s shares have been climbing since soon after the event started. Now up nearly 3 per cent on the day.

But will Facebook’s attempt to step in front of Google and take over the experience of Android provoke a backlash?

Zuckerberg stresses that Facebook wants Home to be available on as many Android handsets as possible. Working with HTC and AT&T was a helpful way to refine the experience

Asked in the Q&A about Facebook’s relationship with Apple, he has this to say: “We have a great relationship with Apple… Apple is a very controlled environment… We are committed to doing our best work on every platform.”

Zuckerberg certainly doesn’t want to risk antagonising Google too much here. He argues that this is “good for Android” – most developers put most of their effort into Apple’s iOS, and this will bring “some of the high quality experiences that you’re used to on iOS to Android”.

No indication from Facebook when ads will appear on the new homescreen – but at least Zuck is less coy than usual at such launch events and admits they will be coming.

In response to a question, Zuckerberg says he can imagine Facebook eventually opening Home up to other services, such as Twitter. But for now it’s all about pictures and
status updates, which account for 70-80 per cent of what people share on Facebook.

Some more details on availability: only in the US at first, on the HTC One and its variants, as well as Samsung’s S3, S4 and Note 2

And just in case you thought all those old “Facebook Phone” rumours were now dead and buried:

This chart shows a thumbs up from Wall Street for Facebook Home.

So that’s it. Not a phone, not an operating system, not even a fork of an operating system. But certainly no lack of ambition: Facebook believes that social networking is what people really want to do most on smartphones, and this will be the way to do it. We’ll see what sort of reaction that provokes from Google.