So Facebook wants to make a smartphone. Not just a nice app that it sorely lacks right now, but a piece of hardware that it supposedly will design, with the help of a half-dozen former iPhone and iPad software and hardware engineers it has hired.
As farfetched and even crazy as this may sound to those of us rubes who like to do more than just check in on Facebook with their smartphones, it’s apparently a longstanding obsession of the company. That obsession was recently heightened by an initial public offering that went less than swimmingly partly because investors were worried about the company’s lack of a strategy to make money from users on mobile devices. The idea, it seems, is that Facebook needs a clean mobile slate to fulfill its vision of socially infused advertising, so the only way to do that without interference from Apple, Google, carriers, or simply status-quo thinking by phone makers is to do its own.
But little of this rampant speculation makes much sense on its face. Mainly, the idea that Facebook needs to do this to ensure that it can run ads more easily ignores the fact that users–who ultimately would make a decision whether to buy a new phone–aren’t clamoring for ads from Facebook on their devices. A design that essentially makes the smartphone safe for Facebook ads seems unlikely to appeal to Facebook users. Maybe they won’t mind ads on their phones as much as some people might think, if they’re relevant to the activity at hand, but Facebook would have to offer very much more than that to get people to part with their existing phone.
Here’s the thing: Every smartphone is a Facebook phone. Every phone is a Google phone. The essence of the smartphone, like the computer, is that it’s programmable–you can, and people do, make it their own personal phone. Anything that limits that flexibility, even in the name of making it easier to use the most popular Web service on the planet, will be a nonstarter with the masses.
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