It's about time, Facebook. With Paper, the social network has undergone a Cinderella transformation that finally gives users a mobile devices application they can enjoy looking at as much as they enjoy using.
The app comes as Facebook celebrates its 10th birthday, a milestone of impressive bragging rights. With 1.2 billion users, it's practically the monopoly communications platform for the global internet - Ma Bell for the broadband age. It hushed skeptics last week by proving it's building a gargantuan advertising business for smartphones, too.
But for all its success, Facebook has been stubbornly uninspired in its approach to design.
Like Craigslist and news aggregator Drudge, Facebook's engineers have long valued function over aesthetics. As a result, it's had all charm of shopping at a Wal-Mart, where the aisles are organised, easy to manoeuvre and utterly lacking charm.
In comes Paper, with the look and feel of a glossy magazine. It pays more respect to pictures, videos and other visuals, the brunt of what's shared these days. The app also acknowledges Facebook's massive influence over online media and takes a purposeful step into the business of news aggregation.
Paper isn't supposed to replace Facebook's main app, or so the company says. But one can't help but think it's the future. Facebook is so much more than pokes and status updates. More than 600 million users check in daily around the world. Six in 10 American adults have an account. Pictures are shared daily by the millions. And Facebook is where scores of its users first learn about big news events such as last year's Boston Marathon bombing.
"Facebook is officially a huge media company, and Paper is the company's biggest upgrade for the user experience to date," said DJ Saul, the chief marketing officer of research and consulting firm iStrategyLabs.
In Paper, users don't lose the basic tools of Facebook: to see posts from friends and family and share their own. But it strips away the clunky tool bar and widgets in the familiar blue frame of the main app. So far there are no ads. Pictures and graphics consume the screen, bleeding over the vast wastelands of white background on the main mobile app.
The app is currently only available for the iPhone. It's connected to all other Facebook platforms, so a post on Paper appears on the main mobile app and desktop website.
The app takes the streaming vertical feed of friends' posts and turns them sideways, putting photos and comments on graphically rich tiles across the bottom half of the screen. Users swipe the posts; they can skim them quickly or tap on a tile to go deeper and read stories shared by friends or look at photo albums. Users manipulate photos and other content with gestures including pinching and swiping. By tilting the device, photos shift, twist and turn around, making the phone much like a video game console. (Nausea warning: Don't go crazy with the tilting function on a full stomach.)
On the top half of the screen, bright and crystal-clear photos from friends' accounts automatically rotate, much like a digital frame that cycles through a photo album.
The design upgrade is a significant step forward for a company that has raced to keep up with its breakneck growth in users. It has frustrated users with its ever-changing privacy policies, which for committed users can feel like the slow boil of a frog. And users are captive to the company's algorithms that prioritise which posts go up first based on what they think users care about most, a process they often get wrong.
The upgrade is a sign that its leaders are ready to hang up their hoodies and recognize they are growing up by donning an ensemble befitting of the world's biggest online platform.
"Paper was designed on a principle: Content should be respected. Facebook is supposed to be like a glass through which you can see its contents," Jason Barrett Prado, one of Paper's developers, wrote in a Quora post last week. Prado and other Paper developers worked on the iPhone and have come from a culture where design was prized as highly as utility.
"This has been an aspirational goal for a long time, but in reality many of the pixels on the screen in our products are not content, they are chrome."
Paper is also Facebook's first serious move into media. It's a newsfeed that curates stories from major publishers including the Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar and Buzzfeed. Readers pick areas of interest from categories such as Planet, Tech, Pride and Headlines. Unlike its newsfeed, which incorporates some news stories fed by media organisations, the magazine layout of Paper makes it easier to browse and explore. News stories unfold like paper, emphasizing headlines and author's bylines. The news reader takes aim at FlipBoard, a dominant tablet app with a similar format that is also rich in graphics and visual art.
By culling news stories for users, Facebook takes a more deliberate step into the business of news aggregation. Already, 60 percent of users visit every day, most of them over mobile devices. And Facebook is the Web's biggest driver of traffic to publishers' sites. In September 2013, it drove one-tenth of all traffic to publishers' sites, according to online research firm Statista.
Facebook calls Paper an experiment that complements the main app, coming from a small group of engineers in its Creative Labs. Users cannot create Facebook events on Paper. Posting longer messages is cumbersome over mobile apps and will probably be done on desktop computers, the company said.
"It's truly an experiment and not for everyone, which is OK," said Jillian Stefanki, a spokeswoman for Facebook.
Facebook's Paper is currently only available in the US app store.