Facebook Hijacks Google's Android

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- While most of those looking at Google's ( GOOG) mobile challenges focused on Samsung and Amazon.com ( AMZN), which are forking Google's Android operating system to siphon revenue from the Web site, a greater threat was rising from Facebook ( FB).

Facebook Home hijacks Google's Android, despite the happy talk from CEO Mark Zuckerberg about how open Google is. Facebook Home does this by putting a Facebook news stream on the lock screen, running it as soon as you turn on the phone. The happy talk hid the device maker who would never allow such a thing, and who must not be named. ( Apple ( AAPL))

It's not a Facebook operating system, and it's not a fork of Android. It's a family of apps that hijacks any Android phone and makes it Facebook-centric.

Coverfeeds controls the lock screen with your Facebook feed. There's a Chatheads app to make text messaging easier. And there's an AppLauncher to let you create a subset of apps that launch within a separate screen.

If you really like Facebook, you'll really like Home. You might even want to run off to your local AT&T store and buy an HTC First phone, right now, for just $99.99 (with a service contract) available in a week. Or you can download the software from Google Play. If you already have Facebook's Android app, you'll be invited to upgrade soon.

A report on mobile-phone use from market researcher Flurry Analytics shows that apps, not browsers, are how mobile users access the Internet, and that Facebook is becoming a dominant app.

Apps get 80% of mobile online use, the study said, while browsers get only 20%. Facebook's app gets 18% of total online use, and games get another 32%. Savvy readers will note that Facebook is increasingly a games network.

Concludes Flurry CEO Simon Khalaf: "Facebook has become the most adopted browser in terms of consumer time spent."

So while Google gets more than half the mobile ad spend, according to eMarketer figures, Facebook is catching up fast, and could bring in $964 million this year alone.

Google's response, so far, is to play this like Microsoft, taking more control over the underlying operating system, embracing and extending:
  • Google is forking Webkit, the open source rendering engine originally created by Apple, with a new version called "Blink" that will go on to its browser and Chrome tablets.
  • Google is adding a password-saving feature to Chrome on Android phones, replicating third-party apps like Dashlane.
  • Google will build a cheaper version of its 7-inch Nexus tablet, priced as low as $149. Reuters reports the product will be formally announced at May's Google I/O conference.

Google is also doing a big push for Google Plus, its own social network, and pushing use of its sign-in technology for other apps and Web sites.

It's all an effort to gain control over users' mobile experience before rivals like Facebook do. What's at stake, according to BIA/Kelsey, is $9.1 billion in mobile local search revenue that will be available by 2017, up from $1.2 billion last year.

There was no talk about money or ads at the Facebook event. Everyone was dressed too casually for that. But just wait until the suits get hold of this. The mobile business just got a lot more interesting. And maybe Facebook just made itself a buy.

At the time of publication, the author was long GOOG and AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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