Facebook Home could cure Android fragmentation

April 06, 2013

NEW YORK, April 6 — Facebook’s new app is currently only compatible with 25 per cent of the world’s Android handsets, but Facebook’s technological power could force handset makers to keep their existing phones up to date for longer.

A Facebook employee displays an HTC phone with the new Home operating system. — AFP picA Facebook employee displays an HTC phone with the new Home operating system. — AFP picWhen asked about the company’s plans to build its own smartphone, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s response has always been that mobile is the future and therefore it is Facebook’s aim to be on every phone.

The social network took a huge step towards achieving that goal this week when it officially revealed Facebook Home — a “skin” for smartphones that run the Android operating system and that integrates Facebook into all elements of the mobile device, from the contacts book and messaging to web browsing, voice calls and even the lock screen.

This hosting of “social” features is only possible because Android is such an open system — developers can tweak any part of its underlying code in order to build their apps, and mobile carriers and phone manufacturers alike also use this openness to build in their own functions, features, limitations and icons into the stock OS to help differentiate their products.

However, this same openness means that when the Facebook Home app officially launches later this month fewer than half of Android smartphone owners will be able to use it.

Facebook confirmed that initially, only the HTC First, HTC One, HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy SIII, SIV and Note II will be able to run its new app, which is currently optimised for Jelly Bean, the most recent version of Android. 

In a Q and A during the event, the company indicated that the app is currently being improved to run on tablets and that following more development work will be able to run on Ice Cream sandwich too (the version of Android before Jelly Bean). However, it will not run on Gingerbread (version 2.3). This means that almost 40 per cent of active Android smartphone handsets globally are incompatible with the app and its features.

This fragmentation of the operating system is slowly improving. According to Google’s latest figures, published this week, 25 per cent of the global Android community own a device running Jelly Bean, and therefore would be able to use the app. 

However, 19.3 per cent of users are on Ice Cream Sandwich, which is not going to be supported until later this year. Until now, developers have openly and constantly complained that the fragmentation across the ecosystem was making it very difficult to develop apps that took full advantage of the operating system’s latest features as by doing so, they were alienating 75 per cent of Android’s possible global customer base.

However, now that Facebook is one of those developers, network carriers and handset makers might start doing more to push out software updates to their customers and to ensure that the technology they build into handsets today will still be able to support the software in the future.

This is a problem, thanks to the closed nature of iOS, that iPhone and iPad users never experience. However, the fact that the operating system’s source code is closed is also the reason why iPhone users are not getting an Apple version of Facebook Home on their devices. — AFP-Relaxnews