Ladies and gentlemen, the "Facebook phone" is here. Only it isn't actually a phone. It's an app.
As (cough, cough) someone predicted amidst all the "OMG FB PHONE!" and "holy forked version of Android!" noise last week, Facebook's big announcement this morning was about a launcher -- and little more.*
Facebook Home, as the product's called, is a custom Android launcher that'll be available in the Google Play Store starting next Friday. Custom launchers are nothing new to the Android platform; they've been around since the days of Cupcake (a really old version of the operating system, for the uninitiated).
An Android launcher, in short, is an app that replaces your device's default home screen and app drawer setup. It doesn't overwrite or remove anything; it simply sits on top of your phone's existing configuration as a new UI layer, akin to if you installed a custom desktop UI program on top of Windows. It's not a full-blown modified version of Android, a la Samsung TouchWiz or HTC Sense; rather, it runs in conjunction with an existing Android build without altering it in any way.
While Android launchers are traditionally focused on letting power users tweak and customize the stock environment, the Facebook Home launcher is focused -- as you'd expect -- on making Facebook the core of your smartphone experience. It replaces your default home screen and lock screen with the Facebook Cover Feed (i.e. News Feed) and provides an integrated Facebook/SMS chat system that carries throughout the OS.
Here's the funny thing: The Facebook Home UI actually doesn't look half-bad. As I remarked in the moments after its introduction, the launcher might be appealing -- if, you know, it didn't force your phone to revolve completely around Facebook.
That's the problem, though: It does. Your traditional home screen with apps and widgets is gone, replaced by a giant full-screen Facebook stream. You can still get to a regular app drawer to run other things, of course, but the entire environment is very much designed to keep Facebook front and center, wherever you look.
Along those same lines, the Facebook Home setup will soon feature ads, according to His Zuckness -- "sponsored posts" scattered throughout your friends' updates, just like they are on the regular Facebook News Feed. The difference is that here, the News Feed is your home screen and lock screen -- the core of your smartphone experience -- and you'll be inviting the ads into that precious space.
* Facebook did introduce a phone to go along with its new launcher -- the HTC First, to be sold by AT&T starting next Friday -- but it's basically just a normal midrange phone that comes with the Facebook Home launcher preinstalled. Bragging about a phone having a launcher preinstalled is like bragging about a phone having Flipboard preinstalled ("Anyone can download and install it in 12 seconds, but with this phone, it comes preloaded -- and you probably can't uninstall it!"). Bloatware isn't a feature.