A persistent rumor has resurfaced which suggests that Facebook is planning to build a smartphone. The idea that the social network giant should develop its own smartphone makes no more sense now than it did the first time it was rumored back in 2010.
According to the New York Times, Facebook "has already hired more than half a dozen former Apple software and hardware engineers who worked on the iPhone, and one who worked on the iPad".
The reason suggested for this move into hardware -- relevance.
"Mark [Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO] is worried that if he doesn't create a mobile phone in the near future that Facebook will simply become an app on other mobile platforms," a Facebook employee told the Times.
This is the third time that a semi-credible Facebook phone rumor has come up. Back on 2010, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was working on a smartphone, and then in 2011 it was the turn of AllThingsD to pick up on the rumor and run with it.
As to whether Facebook is toying internally with the idea of a smartphone, I don't know. But what strikes me about all these rumors is that they fail to address why a smartphone is a key component in the Facebook strategy. Hardware is an enormously risky business; ask companies such as RIM or Motorola and they will tell you just how risky it can be. There is massive scope for failure, and an equally massive scope for burning through huge piles of cash in the process.
What's more, the key factor of how a Facebook phone will offer a different experience from a Facebook app or simply visiting the Facebook website via the browser is not explained. What differentiates the hardware experience from the app experience? This is crucial, since people are going to be expected to trade up their existing phone -- on which they can access Facebook for free via the app or browser -- and buy another handset. If there isn't a clear advantage as to why people should buy the hardware -- beyond bragging rights -- then the idea is doomed.
Right now, the strategy doesn't seem to consist of much more than slapping the Facebook logo on some hardware. And even that's been tried before.
I wonder if this Facebook phone idea -- if it exists -- isn't being driven by the fact that Twitter now enjoys cozy integration into Apple's iOS platform, giving that social network site a foot in the door into millions of iPhones and iPads. Twitter users are just a username and password away from using the service, while Facebook users have to download and install an app. Perhaps Facebook is using the specter of developing its own handset as leverage against Apple to get its service integrated into iOS?
While that's an interesting idea, I'm not sure Apple works that way. I doubt that Apple would be threatened by any smartphone endeavor that Facebook might have planned.
If Facebook has ideas on how to make its service more usable on smartphones, it seems counterintuitive to not be designing the apps with this in mind already. I know the company is now in a position where it has to be seen to be trying to make money, but chiseling the end user by expecting them to buy a smartphone doesn't seem like a smart place to start.
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