Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has just given TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington an exclusive half-hour interview to correct what looks like a TechCrunch screwup: it claimed Facebook was secretly developing a “Facebook phone”. (We should all be so lucky....) One of the things that emerged – and which I’m highlighting because either you didn’t see the interview or fell asleep before the end – is that Zuckerberg is feeling the pain from the chaos in the smartphone market. He says:
today it’s like, Ok, we want to go build an app. Even a new product that we launch. We’re working on Questions, and it’s like OK. So we build Questions for the web, then we build the ‘m’ site for Questions, then we build the Touch HTML5 version of questions. Then we build the iPhone version of Questions, and then the Android version, and then maybe.. (Elliot Schrage: iPad…) Right, the iPad stuff. And then we don’t work on a RIM version and then a bunch of people are pissed because it’s not available on their phone. It’s kind of a disaster right now. I really hope that the direction that this stuff goes in is one where there’s more of a standard.
Of course, this isn’t a novel observation: people have been pointing out for years that the smartphone operating system space has too many competitors, and that it has yet to enjoy the sort of slimming down that has taken place in the mainframe, minicomputer and PC markets. Arrington is clearly no mug and must already have noticed this fact himself. Why, then, would he think there was room for a “Facebook phone” as well?
As for Zuckerberg, it’s a useful reminder that he has moved Facebook to Silicon Valley, and he now sees the world in the same way. A bystander would be shocked to discover from his comments that the two leading smartphone operating systems are Nokia’s Symbian (42% of sales in this year’s second quarter, according to Gartner on August 12) and RIM’s BlackBerry (18.2%). Android was third (17.2%) but may already be second, followed by Apple’s iOS (14.2%) and Microsoft’s declining Windows Mobile (5%).
The choice of which smartphone platforms to support is actually worse than these numbers suggest. As well as Symbian, Nokia also has MeeGo, a version of Linux that is a combination of Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin. RIM is also developing a new smartphone platform based on the QNX real-time operating system, which it owns. Microsoft is doing another “re-set” to move from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone 7, though both actually have Windows CE underneath. And the world’s biggest IT company – Hewlett-Packard – has bought Palm and is expected to launch devices based on WebOS.
Will developers who can’t support five platforms suddenly start supporting 10? Answer: not unless seven or eight of them can be programmed at once using Java, Adobe Flash or whatever, or delivered via HTML5 websites. The last one is what Zuckerberg went on to mention in the TechCrunch interview. He said:
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. I imagine that over the long term that will be the solution to this problem that you’re talking about.
This might cut the legs off the galloping app market, but maybe not completely. From what I’ve seen of smartphone users, a lot of them would be happy to pay 99c for an “app” that only comprised a snazzy icon that linked to an HTML5 website.