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.
As Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor, who reportedly is heading smartphone project, has said himself, “Mobile devices are inherently social.” For that matters, phones themselves–the talking part, not the computing part–have always been inherently social too. So why would they, and their users, need Facebook to add a social layer atop it?
Answer: They don’t. They just need a good app, or set of apps, or even a decent, ultimately HTML5-enabled website to give people an easier way to do what they’re already doing: Check into Facebook and send photos and videos to friends there. Provide a compelling mobile experience that people use amid all the photo-sharing, searching, shopping and more that people increasingly use their phones to enable, and the advertising and other monetization opportunities will follow.
What people don’t need, and I suspect most don’t want, is a new phone from Facebook to do that. That’s why I find it hard to believe that Facebook really intends to get into the phone business. Dave Winer suggests that Facebook is really designing a social camera. That, as he notes, would be something quite different, with intrinsic appeal given that photos make up a large part of Facebook’s appeal–and likely will continue to be, given that little acquisition recently of photo app Instagram, not to mention last week’s release of a camera app.
So I suspect that regardless of whether various folks at Facebook actually intend to design or sell their own branded smartphone, the ultimate value for Facebook to undertake such an effort is not the phone itself. It’s the understanding of what users really want, and the knowledge of how to deliver a compelling experience on mobile devices, that can only be learned by actually designing and delivering a phone itself.
Google’s own similar efforts to design and market its own phone are widely seen to have fallen flat, and from a sales point of view, they certainly did. But it seems likely Google’s effort goaded its Android mobile operating software partners to redouble their own efforts to do better. Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility may prove to be a renewed bet on hardware, for better or worse, but that remains to be seen.
Facebook’s purpose can’t be precisely the same as Google’s, since it seems just as unlikely that it wants to become another alternative to Android and Apple’s iOS software as it wants to become a phone producer. But as a way to find a path to a better environment for its own brand of social advertising, it’s not a bad gambit. Just don’t be surprised if the “Facebook phone” turns out to be something different from most of what we’re reading about today.
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