4 lessons for Apple in the Facebook phone

Facebook Home will be available to download starting April 12 for select Android phones. The HTC First will come pre-loaded with it. Credit: Facebook

FORTUNE — Now we know: The Facebook Phone is neither a phone, nor an operating system. Instead, Zuckerberg unveiled a downloadable collection of apps, available April 12, that will be supported on select Android phones to start, including the $99 HTC First, the first device to come pre-loaded with it. Home, as the whole kit of software is called, doesn’t replace Android but modifies parts of the operating system like the phone’s lock screen and home screen so users can more readily check Facebook updates and notifications, and communicate with other users by way of a new unified messaging feature combining Messenger and text called “Chat heads.”

“We wanted to start off trying to rethink some of those core things,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with Fortune, talking about Android features. “How could these be better if, instead of the current system you have, they were people-centric in all the themes that Facebook stands for.”

Of course, rethinking the way people communicate is standard for the social network. And whether Facebook Home winds up in the hands of a significant number of Facebook’s (FB) 1 billion-plus members, or becomes another failed experiment, there’s no denying Zuck’s app offers an unprecedented degree of social on the smartphone.

MORE: Android: Facebook’s new weapon against Google

That’s something even a successful company like Apple (AAPL) has yet to manage. According to John Gruber, writer of the Apple-centric blog Daring Fireball, the company’s latest version of its mobile software, iOS 7, is allegedly running behind schedule but will sport a systemwide overhaul of the its interface. Ive knows what he’s doing. But just in case, here are five things Cupertino can learn from Facebook this week:

Don’t force the marriage of desktop and mobile. As Zuckerberg told Fortune, Facebook on mobile doesn’t closely resemble the desktop experience — a strategy that seems to be working as the social network continues to expand its footprint on smartphones and tablets. (Indeed, 157 million Facebook users checked the social network daily via mobile devices as of last January.) That’s a different approach from Apple’s, which as of the release of Mac OS X “Mountain Lion” last July, saw a serious infusion of features once found solely in iOS. Some of those features feel organic, but others, like a separate screen for apps called Launchpad, seem superfluous.

If it’s not your strong suit, look elsewhere. Apple is master of many things — industrial design, elegant interfaces, tablets — but let’s face it: Social has never been one of them. One need look no further than the failed, awkwardly named iTunes social networking service Ping for proof. Although Apple now allows some degree of Twitter and Facebook integration, the company was slow to embrace the two companies — particularly Facebook — and Zuckerberg hints the Home experience on Android will eventually come to iOS. We think Apple could do with leaning on Facebook even further. A unified messaging system like the one Home sports is a novel idea, at least for avid Messenger users.

MORE: Mark Zuckerberg: Why we don’t want to build a phone

Relax — just a little bit. A Home-like experience for iOS would likely be great for users who want it, but why the hold-up? Apple’s tight reigns over iOS development is likely the culprit. Though Zuckerberg told Fortune Facebook has a good relationship with Apple, he also suggested when it comes to iOS development, you really need to work with them. “We’d love to offer this on iPhone, and we just can’t today,” he explained. “We will work with Apple to do the best experience that we can within what they want, but I think that a lot of people who really like Facebook — and just judging from the numbers, people are spending a fifth of their time in phones on Facebook. That’s a lot of people.”

Don’t commodify the hardware. With Home, the social network is front and center. That’s understandable — it wants to get on as many Android smartphones as possible. But the HTC handset that will launch with the app pre-loaded hardly looks cutting edge. (Very telling: No hardware features were given during the announcement.) And let’s face it, it’s hard to get excited over a piece of software running on ho-hum hardware. Our point being this: As Apple explores new revenue streams, particularly in areas like China, and mulls over more inexpensive iPhone models, it shouldn’t treat its hardware with any less emphasis than it already does. Because for Facebook, HTC’s average-seeming handset sounds to us like a missed opportunity.

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