Facebook's phone: Will it actually sell?

Facebook is reportedly considering some kind of experience phone, but there's a nagging question surrounding the device: Will it sell?

Facebook is reportedly considering some kind of experience phone, but there's a nagging question surrounding the device: Will it sell?

The saga around the Facebook phone has been fun to watch in recent days. Here's a brief recap:

Add it up and Zuckerberg is indicating that Facebook isn't working on an operating system, does talk to phone makers and is basically looking at a tricked out Android device with the social network's experience.

Zuckerberg said in the TechCrunch interview:

Our role is to be a platform for making all of these apps more social, and it’s kind of an extension of what we see happening on the web, with the exception of mobile, which I think will be even more important than the web in a few years – maybe even sooner. But the basic thing that we’ve found from building social apps and this platform ourselves is that almost any experience or app can be better if it’s social and it has your friends with you. And we just expect there to be really tremendous disruption over the next five years.

From there, Zuckerberg talked about single sign-on and integrating social into all aspects of the phone.

As for me, I just can't get wound up about this Facebook phone thing---unless of course this device somehow cures cancer or makes teleportation a reality (commuting sucks). After pondering these Facebook phone developments---and wondering if I needed some sort of tech blogger therapy for not giving a hoot---it hit me: I just don't think a Facebook phone is going to be all that.

We've seen this tech show before. To wit:

  • Years ago, every category Microsoft entered was going to squash the competition. We now know how that turned out.
  • Google has filled that void. Now every new category Google enters is a big deal, but the company remains largely a one-trick pony with search. Look no farther than Google's various efforts to be social for evidence.
  • Now Facebook is the big dog. Facebook knows social and realizes that it needs some mobile play to control more of its own destiny (notably ad sales). The social graph is mobile. The rub: There's no guarantee that Facebook knows much of anything about mobile devices.

What have we learned from history? Microsoft knows Windows and Office, but not much more. Google knows search and not much more. If you play out the string, it's likely that Facebook knows social and probably not much more.

The enthusiasm around the Facebook phone is partially based on numbers. Facebook has 500 million users. If it sells phones to 10 percent of its base, that's 50 million phones. Facebook is a slam dunk on a phone! Well, not really. It looks like we're headed for a Facebook version of Motorola's Blur software. Or perhaps Facebook creates a souped up HTC Sense-like overlay.

Sure, 27 percent of Gen Y accesses social networking sites from phones, but other generations lag. Chances are good that Facebook's phone will do better than Microsoft's Kin---a spectacular failure---but it may not be nearly as big as we think. Can Facebook really create a great social experience without deep hardware and OS integration? Here's a look at Forrester's latest demographics on how generations interact with their phones.

The reality is that the most popular uses for devices don't completely revolve around social networking. Facebook's chore is to revolutionize text messaging and email---the core activities on a phone. I just don't see Facebook accomplishing that task with an Android skin.

We'll find out in due time. Will a Facebook phone sell well?

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