The Persistence of the Facebook Smartphone Myth
On Facebook's earnings call Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg seemed to deny that the company would be developing its own branded smartphone, presumably an effort to put to rest growing speculation -- mostly attributed to unnamed sources -- about a Facebook phone under development at HTC.
Building a smartphone, said Zuckerberg on the call, "wouldn't really make much sense for us to do."
As nitpickers will hasten to point out, that's not exactly a denial.
"Our mobile strategy is simple: We think every mobile device is better if it is deeply social," says an unnamed Facebook spokesperson in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by Ana Brekalo of The Outcast Agency.
"We're working across the entire mobile industry, with operators, hardware manufacturers, OS providers, and application developers to bring powerful social experiences to more people around the world," adds the spokesperson.
While it's certainly not a confirmation, that statement also doesn't flat out deny that a Facebook phone is in the works.
If Zuckerberg's comments can be taken at face value, then there's simply no phone. End of story.
"Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook isn't making its own phone, choosing instead to focus on integrating with other OS platforms," Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices with Current Analysis, told TechNewsWorld. "I'm inclined to take Zuckerberg's word over rumors from 'people with knowledge of the matter' -- but that's just me."
However, Zuckerberg would not be the first chief to play coy about a project under development that his company was not yet ready to announce.
"I think there are people out there working on a Facebook-branded phone," technology consultant Eric Brown told TechNewsWorld. "It may not be Facebook [itself] and may not be 'approved' by Facebook, but I believe a manufacturer -- HTC, Kyocera, LG, etc. -- might be working on something like this to try to sell the idea to Facebook."
A Good Idea
A Facebook phone could be a boon for a company that has emphasized the importance of the mobile sphere to its business model.
"I think it would be a good idea," said Brown. "Facebook already has brand recognition. Why not parlay that into a device that is Facebook-centric?"
Having its own smartphone, however, might require Facebook to do some fundamental rethinking, restructuring and reorganizing.
"Were Facebook to develop a phone, they would need to acknowledge it is a far different business model than their core and create organizational space to accommodate it," Kevin R. Bolen, a partner with the consulting firm Innosight, told TechNewsWorld.
"Dealing with manufacturing, suppliers, distributors, returns, inventory, seasonal sales cycles -- these are all concepts that are presently foreign to a social network management firm selling advertising," he explained. "Embracing these differences and building a dedicated environment and experienced leadership team to support the new business would be critical to their success."
What Facebook Would Have to Do
For a Facebook smartphone to succeed, according to Brown, it would have to be feature-rich and provide something truly new to the marketplace.
"To succeed long-term, any Facebook-branded phone would need to be a smartphone first and Facebook device second," he said. "To be successful, the device would need to invisibly integrate all the smartphone features with [the] Facebook system -- email, photo sharing, check-ins, etc."
In other words, it would have to go beyond other smartphones in its ability to leverage the strengths of Facebook's social platform.
"The standard features found in smartphones today are key, but I suspect Facebook would want to twist everything to tie into the Facebook ecosystem," said Brown. "The email/calendar/contact apps would most likely be tied into Facebook. A 'chat' and 'videochat' app would most likely be included as well -- both using the Facebook ecosystem."
There's plenty of competition in the smartphone marketplace, so a Facebook phone would have to stand out from the pack and be truly innovative in order to be able to capture any significant market share.
"Facebook's challenge will be to look beyond our current expectations and show us something unexpectedly valuable and exceed what we can get already with the Facebook app on an iPhone," said Bolen.
"Could they look at what else we carry every day and find a way to integrate it the way Apple has with cameras, music, [and] gaming?" he wondered. "Could a Facebook phone replace my wallet?"