May 10, 2013 at 5:00 PM ET
Facebook Home, the Android launcher released to a skeptical public a month ago, is in for some changes — changes that Facebook hopes will help fix the app's abysmal ratings and disappointing download numbers.
At a press conference Thursday, Facebook's VP of engineering, Cory Ondrejka, emphasized total download numbers — nearly a million to date — and upcoming improvements. Still, anyone who has followed Home since its debut knows that's only half the story.
The rumor of a Facebook phone had persisted for years when the company finally decided to collaborate with HTC on the First, the Home flagship device. But less-than-flashy hardware, a $100 on-contract price, and AT&T exclusivity made it hard for the First to make a splash.
The software itself was made available for download — but only for a handful of very high-end phones. And when users downloaded it, they found that the social-centric launcher obscured many of the best features of their expensive devices. No widgets, compromised security, slower performance, inability to customize — the problems were as glaring as they were numerous, and negative reviews started piling up.
Then, earlier this week, after less than a month on shelves, the First dropped from $99 on contract to 99 cents, suggesting sales have been poor. And while Ondrejka trumpeted the fact that Home has been downloaded almost a million times in its month on the Play Store, no mention was made of how many active users there are — a statistic Facebook loves to share when it comes to the ordinary Facebook mobile app.
Speculation is that the uninstall rate is extremely high, and that perhaps only a small percentage of downloaders are using it regularly. Considering that there are well over a billion Facebook users out there, and a large proportion of them use their smartphones to check in regularly, the Home numbers are practically a rounding error.
But Facebook has invested so much in Home that it can't just cry "uncle." Ondrejka detailed new fixes and features coming to the app: Folders for apps, and a dock for frequently-used functions, to start.
It may be too little, too late. Casual users on a budget and those using mid-range phones (not to mention anyone on an iPhone) can't even try out Home, and power users, burned by the inadequate launch version, are unlikely to return for a second go.
A minor bug-fixing update is headed out to Home users Friday, and the promised features will be arriving another, hopefully in the next few months. But will anyone be waiting to download it?
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.