The Soul of a New (Facebook) Machine

Facebook finally brings a phone to market, sort of.


The rock music stopped. The lights dimmed. People in boots and heels scurried back and forth whispering. The music returned and faded away again. The Facebook "f" was projected on four screens in front of the room. A TV cameraman stood on a platform in the middle of the room. There were people in blue Facebook T-shirts behind me, and seven rows of journalists ahead of me. There was a hush. Excitement.

The executives walked out from backstage: Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Chou, CEO of HTC, Ralph De La Vega of AT&T, and three other Facebook higher-ups. The non-reporters to my left broke into applause. The gaggle of Facebook PR people whooped over my right shoulder.

"Hey," Zuckerberg said. The crowd laughed. "Today we're finally going to talk about that Facebook phone. Or more accurately, we're going to talk about how you can turn your Android phone into a great, simple social device."

We had gathered here today in Menlo Park to hear about a new, very deep integration between Facebook and the Android operating system that, for those who download it (it'll be available next Friday), will completely redefine their interactions with their phones. 

"Home" works like this: Instead of a traditional lock screen, visual content from the News Feed will be pushed to users. Once you unlock it, you'll see that same content, but you'll be able to interact with it. The pictures will flip automatically or you can do that part yourself. All messages will pop *over* whatever you're doing on the phone in little circles Facebook calls (seriously) Chat Heads. 

Facebook has not built its own operating system, if we take operating system to mean a way of running the guts of a computer. But if an OS is a way of interacting with a computer -- an interface and a philosophy -- then this is most certainly Facebook's entry into the OS wars.

"The home screen is really the soul of your phone," Zuckerberg said. "You look at it 100 times a day." And so, naturally, Facebook is going for the soul. But the biggest play here is not technical or strategic, but rhetorical. Facebook wants to change the way people think about technologies.

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg immediately went to a higher register. He told us, as he normally does, that Facebook's mission is to "make the world more open and connected," because "these two concepts are a lot of what makes us human." (One can practically imagine Evgeny Morozov roaring, "WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS OPPPPEEEENNNN?")

The human-centric nature of Facebook's approach remained at the core of Zuckerberg's pitch throughout the event. "What if instead of our phones being designed around apps, we flip that around?" he asked. "So that we made it so that our phones were designed around people first."

And by people, of course, Zuckerberg means "Facebook friends." Throughout Zuckerberg's talk, people and Facebook friends were used interchangeably. And for Zuckerberg and his employees, I think this is technically true. For them, all the people they care about are not only on Facebook, but active users who devote time and resources to building digital streams that are legible to other people as their lives.

So, while you can read the Facebook phone announcement as the story of the company's deeper integration with Google's Android operating system, I also read Facebook Home as a story of the integration that Facebook's employees have with their own product. And they'd like for the rest of the world to experience what they do. 

Really what I mean the business and accounting category of ROW, or Rest of World. With billions of people about to make the jump into Internetted life with a smartphone, not a computer, the very definition of 'computing,' is up for grabs.

"For more than 30 years, computers have mostly been about tasks. They were too expensive, clunky and hard to use for you to want to use them for much else," Zuckerberg said. "The modern computing device," by which he meant mostly phones, "is for making us more connected, more social, and more aware. And Home, by putting people first and then apps, by flipping the order, is one of the many small but meaningful changes with technology in time."

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