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This whole Facebook phone rumor is getting about as convoluted and philosophical as trying to understand God. Will there be a Facebook phone? Or a phone with Facebook in it? Or a phone with Facebook’s logo on it? Or will Facebook be in all phones? Will there be many Facebook phones?
Let’s start at the narrowest point and work our way backwards.
The Facebook Phone, made by Facebook
For starters, the idea of a phone made by Facebook with a Facebook-developed operating system isn’t happening. In that sense, there won’t be a Facebook Phone—notice the capitalization of the word “phone.”
“There’s the Apple approach of really designing all the hardware – I don’t think that they manufacture it themselves, but they probably work very closely with Foxconn – but they do have chip design and all of that in-house, I’ll bet we’ll never do anything like that…
I know if we were going to build an operating system, then we wouldn’t have anything to talk about for 4 years. And I know we didn’t start 4 years ago, so I know we’re nowhere near anything on that. What I can say generally is that our goal is not to build an operating system from scratch, or else not to design hardware from scratch. Our goal is to make it so that we can design the best integrations in the widest variety of phones.“
So if you believe what Zuckerberg is saying, there will be no Facebook Phone. Even if he’s lying, it’s a dumb idea—nothing more than a huge, unnecessarily risky undertaking that wouldn’t provide much upside.
Facebook-specific feature phones, made by other companies
These are phones with a deeper level of Facebook integration, and seem very plausible. Zuckerberg speaks of a phone with a single sign-on, similar to how you can use your Facebook credentials to log into certain non-Facebook websites nowadays. It’d basically be Facebook Connect on your phone. “Just make it so that you log into your phone once, and then everything that you do on your phone is social,” said Zuckerberg.
There’s a phone made by INQ that’s been available in Europe for a while that basically does that already. The phone’s contact list is made up of your Facebook friends, and the chat and e-mail functions tie directly into Facebook as well. There’s loose talk that these INQ phones will be coming to AT&T next year, according to speculation by Bloomberg.
Deeper Facebook integration on current smartphones
If you’ve got an Android phone or an iPhone, you can already synchronize your Facebook friends into your contact list. Zuckerberg wonders, “What could we do if we also started hacking at a deeper level?”
He goes on to say:
“For platforms that are really important, but are hard to penetrate, like iPhone, we’ll just do as much as we can. For Android, we can customize it a bit more. Other folks are going to want to work with us on specific things. But, our goal is not to build a phone that competes with the iPhone or anything like that.”
Facebook everywhere thanks to HTML5
The next generation of the underlying code that’ll make up most of the web, HTML5, will make it easier for Facebook to offer functionality across many different smartphone platforms. While there may not be Facebook-specific apps for all platforms, HTML5 will make for a more app-like experience on handsets that aren’t running Android or the iPhone operating systems.
“The mobile market is just so fragmented that there is a lot of experimentation that can happen now too, so we’re figuring out exactly what the optimum level of the stack is to be at. The reality is it will probably be different things to different phones. For some devices that we’re not going to do a lot of specific work for, it will be HTML5…
We have 4 or 500 engineers at the company, it’s pretty hard for us to build a lot of new products and build them all for these different platforms. So if something like HTML5 becomes a big standard then that would be hugely valuable for us. So we’ll help push that.”
The company line: “breadth, not depth”
Facebook’s official position is that it doesn’t want to build a “vertical” phone—the iPhone being a prime example since the hardware, operating system, and app store are all developed and controlled by Apple.
Facebook, according to Zuckerberg, is taking a much more horizontal approach to mobile devices:
“Our strategy is very horizontal. We’re trying to build a social layer for everything. Basically we’re trying to make it so that every app everywhere can be social whether it’s on the web, or mobile, or other devices. So inherently our whole approach has to be a breadth-first approach rather than a depth-first one…
Our goal is to have Facebook be everywhere and everything be social rather than a specific device.”
In the near future
Will we see the Facebook Phone, designed and developed by Facebook? No. Will we see deeper levels of Facebook integration inside phones? Yes, if Facebook has its way. But it doesn’t look like Facebook will actively pursue and develop its own customized phone interface.
Customization may most likely happen on Android, since it’s an “open” operating system, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll be a project Facebook spearheads itself. We may also see more feature phones with deep Facebook integration, such as the aforementioned INQ handset.
One final quote from Zuckerberg that sums up the idea:
“The INQ phone, I don’t think we had any engineers work on it. And certainly HTC modifies all their own Android stuff — Sense. I think a lot of companies are trying to figure out how to differentiate on that. A bunch of them are interested in talking to us, I think it makes sense. Social is becoming more important to make all these applications better. If we can help them do that, that can potentially be very valuable, but that’s more them. I don’t know — it’s a very decentralized ecosystem and there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. But I think the main message that I would hope that you guys would come away with from our strategy is that our goal is breadth not depth.”
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