Nikhil Kumar: The best things in life may be free...but I fear Facebook Home won't be
Nikhil Kumar is The Independent's New York correspondent. He was formerly assistant editor on the foreign desk and has also done a variety of jobs on the city desk, where he wrote about markets, commodities and other business and economics topics.
Saturday 06 April 2013
US Outlook There was something missing from Facebook's much-hyped press conference earlier this week. Not the rumoured "Facebook phone", which turned out to be a beefed-up application that transforms an Android phone's home screen into an always-on Facebook feed. No, the real omission concerned the business of advertising, the source of Facebook's revenues.
The slick software is all well and good and, it should be said, cleverly conceived to work with an operating system that stretches across numerous manufacturers and handsets. Unlike Apple's iOS, which you'll only encounter on an Apple iPhone, Google's Android is there on your Samsung phone. And on the HTC phone you thought about buying. And on the LG phone your friend just bought. And on the Sony Phone you've heard about. And on so many other phones you've never even heard of.
But while he showed off the software on Thursday Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded the social network at university and now helms the business, never once mentioned advertising. Nor, from what was shown during the presentation, was there any sign of any advertisements anywhere on Facebook Home, as the new software is known.
From what we saw, Facebook Home was all about keeping in touch with your friends all the time (which might present its own problems. Just saying). Except, the last time anyone checked, Facebook wasn't a charitable foundation set up to foster friendship and brotherhood among the world's peoples. Keeping in touch is great – as long as it offers a way for Facebook to cash in.
And so, unless it is in fact about to turn into a charity, it's only a matter of time before Facebook Home becomes a virtual hangout not just for you and your friends but also for the companies that want to sell things to you and your friends.
Among the features that were shown off on Thursday was the full-screen feed that continuously updates even when your phone is locked. Users need not click or tap in their passwords to access the feed. It's there. Always. A never-ending slide-show of photos showing the art gallery your best friend visited last night or the new vase your sister bought at the flea market over the weekend – or the museum café where your ex (whom you forgot to de-friend) went on a date.
It doesn't take much to imagine what advertisers might do with this billboard-in-your-pocket. In between slides of the heart-shaped dusting on your ex's cappuccino and your sister's new vase, there might be one advertising a private course in the fine arts. Or pottery, perhaps. If your GPS is switched on, and you just happen to be walking past a shop selling vases – well, you know the rest.
This is pure guesswork, of course. But the fact remains that the free Facebook Home software will be anything but. Users will eventually have to put up with something in return.
Right now, the emphasis has to be on attracting as many users as possible. Hence no mention of advertising. But users don't matter if they don't generate revenues. That's another fact – and one which matters more for Facebook now that it is a public company (a public company, moreover, whose shares remain lodged below its IPO price).
So download Facebook Home if you want. But be prepared.
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