Facebook 'Home' a high-profile disappointment
MENLO PARK, Calif. • In just over a month since the launch of its eye-catching new Android app, Facebook's latest effort to win the hearts of smartphone users has turned into a high-profile disappointment for a company that describes mobile computing as its top priority.
After an initial surge of interest, the volume of consumers downloading the smartphone app called "Home" has fallen dramatically in recent weeks. Users have given a low rating to the app which automatically shows Facebook updates and photos on the home screen of Android phones while complaining that it drains battery life and makes it difficult to use other Android apps and services.
Without releasing sales figures, AT&T last week slashed the price of a new HTC smartphone that comes with the Home app pre-installed, marking it down from $99 to just 99 cents. The tech blog BGR, citing an unnamed AT&T source, reported Monday that AT&T has decided it will soon stop selling the HTC First phone.
While Facebook declined to comment on that report, an AT&T spokesman said, "We have made no decisions about future plans."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has touted the Home app as a major milestone in his company's strategy for serving the growing majority of Facebook users who access the social network on mobile devices.
After being criticized for ignoring those users until last year, analysts say Facebook has made rapid progress in creating new types of advertising to show on mobile devices. The company sold $375 million worth of mobile ads last quarter, for nearly a third of its overall advertising revenue.
The Home app is designed to capture users' attention and keep them engaged by using a smartphone's main screen to display material from their Facebook account. The social network has also worked with Apple to make Facebook features work seamlessly on new iPhones. But with Home, Facebook hoped to showcase its features even more prominently on phones that use Google's popular Android software, which is designed to make it easier for outside developers to build on the Android platform.
While acknowledging some complaints, Facebook executives are standing behind their new app.
"This product is still very early and this is just a first release in a long journey," Zuckerberg told analysts on a May 1 conference call. Other executives have said the company always intended to introduce the app gradually and add improvements based on user feedback.
Facebook said last week that it's working on modifications to make it easier for Home users to access their other apps.
While Home currently takes up all of a phone's main screen, the new features will include a permanent "dock" or bar at the bottom of the screen where users can keep icons for other apps they use regularly. Other new features reportedly include a more detailed introduction for first-time users, explaining how to use Home, and an easier method of launching chats.
It's not surprising to see Facebook pulling back from its effort to dominate the main screen, said mobile tech analyst Ross Rubin of Reticle Research, who added that HTC and Motorola have also tweaked their own user interfaces for Android phones.
"The trend really has been for companies to come out with a very overbearing offering, in terms of how it dominates the interface, and then to scale back significantly over time," he said.
Other analysts cite anecdotal indications that sales of the HTC First have been lackluster. But Facebook executives have said they're pleased that downloads of Home, which currently works on only a handful of other Android phones, reached nearly 1 million last week. The company also said preliminary data showed Home users were spending 25 percent more time on Facebook.
Downloads of the Home app have fallen, however. According to the App Annie analytics firm, the app rose in the first week after its release to become the 50th most downloaded app by U.S. users in the Google Play store, before falling below the rank of 300 in recent weeks. Facebook's regular Android app is the store's most downloaded app in the United States, according to App Annie.
"Clearly this is not where they want to be," said Rubin, although he predicted Facebook will recover from the setback. "This is a company that almost never misses an opportunity to say they're very serious about mobile. They'll certainly be back."