Investors shouldn't buy into Facebook Inc.'s latest hype.
Last week, the social media giant announced an app called Facebook Home that it hopes will boost its fortunes among mobile users. The app might do just that in the short run, but to my mind it does little to budge the company's long-term competitive position.
First, though, a bit of background. I predicted before the announcement that Facebook would not build its own phone because such a device would threaten its relationship with Google Inc., which owns Android, the world's most popular operating system for smartphones. Instead, I thought that a deeper integration between Facebook and Google would be a better idea.
As it turns out, Facebook did not announce a new phone – good for it – but also failed to announce any kind of deeper partnership with Google. And that makes me less than enthusiastic about its new app despite the undoubted appeal of the new software.
For those who already love Facebook, Home is ultra cool. People are calling it a "takeover" app because it dominates the appearance of your Android phone. Your lock screen and home screen become a slideshow of photos from your Facebook newsfeed. You can double-tap to "like" a photo or add a comment directly, without having to go into a separate Facebook app. Instead the app is always there, always on.
And there's more. Facebook chats and normal text messages follow you around the phone, no matter what app you are using. The chat displays as an overlay on top of your browser, e-mail, or whatever app you have open at the time. This is similar to how PC users could set chat applications to be "always on top" and therefore always visible.
Facebook has done an impressive job of implementing all of this, and the business justification is obvious. Facebook has more than a billion users today, and its next billion users are going to come largely from mobile devices, not PCs. Building a more compelling "always on" user experience could allow Facebook to generate more value from advertising than with its older apps on Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
For all those reasons, Facebook Home was a smart move – for now. It will probably accelerate user growth and user engagement on Facebook this year. Because users of Facebook Home are always logged in, Facebook can capture more location data, and present more relevant offers to its user base. This isn't the case when Facebook is just an ordinary app that can be closed down.
But will Facebook Home matter beyond this year? I'm not convinced. In fact, I think it could soon become irrelevant. And my investing style is to think about long-term shifts, not the next quarter or fiscal year.
Remember that Facebook did not partner with Google in developing this application. Instead, it leveraged existing "hooks" within Android to enable the new features.
This approach is little different from what many Windows applications were offering 15 years ago. Back then, we had chat windows that could float on top of other open applications, or cause customized stock tickers to take over the screensaver function.
Facebook didn't invent anything new here. It just brought an old concept from PC land over to mobile screens and did so with Apple-esque flair. So I expect Google, Apple, BlackBerry and Microsoft to copy the Home concept. At that point, Facebook's Home application won't be necessary for users.
That's why I wouldn't buy Facebook stock based on the new app. Sure, Home could accelerate growth this year. But growth expectations are already lofty. Analysts think the company will post 57 cents (U.S.) in earnings per share this year, growing to $1.05 in 2015.
If you believe Facebook Home gives the company a sustained advantage, then I think buying the stock makes sense. But if you're not so sure the advantage is sustainable in the face of competition from the platform owners, then it doesn't change the investment story. Put me in the second camp.