Back in September of 2010, we heard the very first inkling of a rumor that social media giant Facebook would be ponying up and building their own mobile operating system and a budget-friendly phone. Not long after the rumor started, Facebook spoke out and shot down the rumors, despite having also spoken with various manufacturers about Facebook branded phones.
And so the journey began ...
Ever since the first Facebook phone rumor, insider reports, Facebook and the media have been playing a drawn-out game of tug-o-war. There is a Facebook phone in the works. No there isn't. Okay, maybe there is. Zuckerberg steps in and shoots down all rumors. Another surfaces. And another. Oh, and another.
Last we had heard in 2011, sources told All Things D that Facebook and HTC had teamed up once again and were working on another unique device, codenamed "Buffy". Our own Alex explained the mystery Facebook device would feature "deep integration with the 'Book." and "is reportedly running a heavily modified version of Android that will be integrated with Facebook services and support HTML5 as an app platform."
More information was uncovered when sources told Digitimes that an HTC-made Facebook phone, which will fully enable and integrate all Facebook functions, will launch in the third quarter of this year.
Yesterday, yet another Facebook phone rumor surfaced. Anonymous sources (comprised of Facebook employees and others familiar with the matter) told Nick Bilton of The New York Times that Facebook has hired former Apple software and hardware engineers to create and release a phone of its own by next year. Zuckerberg has concerns about the future of Facebook, fearing it will "simply become an app on other mobile platforms" if they do not create their own smartphone, one Facebook employee tells Bilton.
As many have pointed out recently, Facebook's next major hurdle is monetizing the mobile game, and creating their own smartphone could certainly be the way in. But it's not as simple as just building a phone with decent software and hardware. Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch breaks it down quite well in It'll Be A Miracle If The Facebook Phone Doesn't Suck. Among several other great points made by Tsotsis, she says:
"Basically, there are a million ways this project will fail, and just one way it will work: Facebook ostensibly could succeed by tapping into the opening in the mobile market where people want an alternative to poorly designed Android phones — targeting people who would buy something other than an iPhone if the price point was $150 less and the design were at least a little bit more ambitious than what is currently available on Android. Picture a Lumia that’s one big Facebook app if you need a visual."
As HTC taught us with the ChaCha and Status, no haphazard phone in the current mobile market will sweep anyone off their feet, even with a dedicated Facebook button. In order for a Facebook phone to be successful, in terms of hardware, it would have to compete on the same level of HTC's One series, the iPhone or Nokia's Lumia series with a competitive price point. Aside from being blue from top to bottom and having a giant F branded on it (presumably not to represent the major fail it most certainly would be), it would have to be unique. This is something mobile phone manufacturers have been struggling with since the smartphone boom began in 2007.
And that doesn't even begin to take into consideration the massive amount of work the software will need. Chances are, Facebook will not create its own mobile operating system. It could. And it could license it to hardware manufacturers, thus monetizing their mobile efforts, much like Microsoft is currently doing with Windows Phone. (The story of Windows Phone should also be a cautionary tale for Facebook. Despite the large amounts of love the platform receives from fans, it is now over 18-months-old and has garnered less than 2.6 percent global smartphone market share.) It would be more beneficial for Facebook to use an existing platform and modify it to their needs, much like Amazon did with Android for the Kindle Fire. With that, they could deeply integrate Facebook's features around every corner of the OS without having to create their own.
But, as Tsotsis says, "there are a million ways this project will fail". The success of such a project hinges on every single aspect of the hardware and software. Plus, they have to hope wireless providers are even interested in supporting another string of devices and software.
Facebook should leave hardware to those who do it best.
Just last Friday, word spread that Facebook has interest in buying Opera, a popular third-party browser maker. This would allow Facebook to generate revenue (via ads) from users whether they are using Facebook or not, both from desktop and mobile. It would also keep them from having to develop their own Web browser from scratch, which is what some have been suggesting Facebook should (or might) do to keep from growing stagnant.
I'm no expert on the issue. But Facebook's aim is to stick around for a while and to avoid pulling a Myspace. Building their own hardware, although it worked well for Amazon, would not likely bode as well for the social network. (Not to mention, Kindle Fire sales allegedly plummeted after the holidays.) It requires a lot of time, money and effort – all resources which Facebook has plenty of right now. But the Kindle Fire was an incentivized device – a handheld portal for Prime users to consume Amazon services. Facebook has fewer (if any) incentives to offer to Facebook phone owners. The chances of failure are substantially higher than the incredibly small chance of success from a Facebook phone, and it offers next to no benefit for consumers.
From what I can tell, Facebook's best and safest bet is to stick to what they do best: software. They need to focus on maintaining incredible user experience, utilizing their purchase of Instagram (once it gets fully approved), bringing that same, high-quality experience to mobile and creating the Facebook Browser (desktop and mobile). Let the existing hardware companies do all the footwork and partner with them to put the Facebook Browser on their phone instead of the stock browser.
What Facebook needs to realize is that there is a line in which its users should not cross. Facebook is not "cool" – it never has been. Much like Fight Club, you do not talk about Facebook. And you do not carry a Facebook phone, else you risk becoming that guy or that girl. However, it has always been an awesome, unique, top-notch tool for connecting with friends and sharing pictures, thoughts and information. Facebook does not need hardware to continue being Facebook.
Stick to software, Zuck. It's what you're known for and deviating from the path too far is where too many companies go wrong. Stick to what you know. Stick to what you're good at. And leave hardware to the experts.