Facebook Phone Rumored Again, but Fundamental Questions Remain

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Facebook is working on its own smartphone — no, seriously this time.

The New York Times reports that Facebook intends to launch a phone by next year, citing unnamed Facebook employees, engineers that the company sought to hire and other anonymous sources.

The Facebook phone has become one of the tech industry’s favorite recurring rumors, dating back to 2010 and reappearing several times since then. Facebook denied the rumors at first but lately has stuck to a generic sort of non-response: “We’re working across the entire mobile industry; with operators, hardware manufacturers, OS providers, and application developers.”

Previous rumors were accurate, the Times reports, but Facebook scrapped its earliest plans and is still supposedly working on “Buffy,” a secret phone project in collaboration with HTC that All Things D reported on last year. Facebook is also reportedly putting together its own team of hardware engineers for other smartphone projects.

The Times’ report is perhaps the best evidence yet that the Facebook phone is real, but it doesn’t clear up some of the fundamental questions about this rumored product:

  • Will it be based on Android and heavily modified, like Amazon’s Kindle Firetablet, or will it use its own operating system?
  • Where will the apps come from? Many of Facebook’s desktop apps are based on Adobe Flash, which doesn’t work well on mobile devices, and HTML5 isn’t yet ready to replace native apps. If Facebook uses Android, it could create its own app store based on existing Android apps, as Amazon did with the Kindle Fire, but the Times’report says nothing about this.
  • Where will other content come from? Facebook doesn’t have its own storefront for music, video and books, so it would either need to build one or use someone else’s.
  • Will Facebook work with wireless carriers, or will it pursue the unlocked, contract-free strategy that Google now seems interested in?
  • And the most fundamental question of all: What’s in it for consumers? What would a Facebook phone offer that users couldn’t get from a really good iPhone or Android app?

The Times’ story answers none of these questions, but maintains that a Facebook phone would make sense for Facebook because the company wouldn’t have to rely so much on Apple and Google. That’s not a good enough justification for the phone’s existence. Even if the rumors are true, there’s not much to get excited about until we start hearing specifics.

(MORE: This Facebook Phone Thing Is as Straightforward as God)