This past weekend, a TechCrunch article caught the tech blogosophere off guard with an interesting claim:
Facebook is building a mobile phone, says a source who has knowledge of the project. Or rather, they’re building the software for the phone and working with a third party to actually build the hardware. Which is exactly what Apple and everyone else does, too.
The question is, does a Facebook phone platform (or, fbPhone to borrow the i/g prefix style corresponding to Apple and Google) make sense for Facebook to pursue?
On the one hand, Facebook is rapidly becoming an “operating system” of sorts for the web. According to Facebook’s statistics page, Facebook has over 550K active applications developed on it and over 1 million additional third party websites which have integrated in some fashion with this monumental platform. But, beyond sheer numbers, Facebook’s platform passes what I consider to be the true “is it a real platform” test that Windows, Linux, and Mac OS have passed: it has the ability to sustain a large $100M+ software company like Zynga (which has been estimated to generate over $800 million in annual revenues), capable of now spending enormous amounts on R&D and sales & marketing (and even of experimenting with its own rival gaming platform). This is something which, to my knowledge, the iPhone and Android ecosystems have yet to achieve.
Given its status as an “operating system” for web developers, there is certainly some value Facebook could gain from expanding into the mobile operating system sphere. It would make the Facebook experience more sticky for users who, once they step away from their computers, can only interact with the most basic Facebook features (pictures, notifications, news feeds) by making it easier for developers to truly view Facebook (mobile and desktop) as one application platform.
On a strategic level, Facebook probably also sees potential dangers from Google and Apple’s control of the underlying smartphone software platforms. This control could transform Apple’s very shoddily constructed music “social networking service” Ping and Google’s thus-far unsuccessful attempts, as per its usual business strategy, to weaken Facebook’s dominant position in the social web into a serious threat to Facebook’s long-term position.
So, there are obvious benefits to Facebook in pursuing the platform route. However, I think there is an even more obvious downside: its HARD to build a mobile phone operating system. The TechCrunch article points out that Facebook has hired a number of the top mobile/tablet OS developers in the industry – while this means that its not impossible for Facebook to build a phone platform, its a long shot from building a full-fledged operating system. Assuming Facebook wants to build a phone, its unlikely to take the Apple route and build one monolithic phone. Like Google, Facebook’s business model is built around more user engagement, so a Facebook phone strategy would more likely be centered around getting as many users and phones possible to plug into Facebook.
The path towards such a phone platform (rather than single phone) requires many complicated relationships with carriers, with middleware providers, with hardware manufacturers, and with regulatory bodies (who are not too keen on Facebook’s privacy policies right now), not to mention deep expertise around hardware/software integration. Compare the dates for when Google and its wide swath of partners first announced the Open Handset Alliance (November 2007) to when the first Android phone was available (October 2008). A full year of committed development from industry giants HTC (hardware), Qualcomm (silicon), T-Mobile (carrier), and Google – and that’s assuming the alliance got started on the day that the project was announced and that partners like Verizon/Motorola/Samsung/ARM/etc did absolutely nothing.
From my perspective, Facebook has three much more likely (albeit still difficult) paths forward given the benefits I mentioned above for having its own mobile phone platform:
- Build another “Open Handset Alliance” with the ecosystem: This is the only route that I see for Facebook to take if it wants its own, strong foothold in the mobile platform space. The challenge here is that the industry is not only tired of new platforms, but is also not likely to want to cede as much control to Facebook as they did to Google and Apple (and potentially Microsoft when it rolls out its Windows Phone 7 OS). This makes the path forward for Facebook complicated at best and, even when successful, requires it to compete against very well-established operating systems from Google & its partners and Apple.
- Pull a HTC/Motorola and build a layer on top of or modify an open OS like Android or MeeGo: This, to me, makes the most sense. It eliminates the need for Facebook to invest heavily in hardware/network/silicon capabilities for deep phone platform development, and it also allows Facebook to leverage the application and ecosystem support that Android and MeeGo command (provided they don’t make too many modifications). Instead, Facebook can focus on building the tools and features that are most relevant to its own business goals. The downside to this, though, is that Facebook loses a fair amount of control over the final user experience and still has to play nice with the phone manufacturers, but these are things it would have to do no matter what strategy it picked
- Just build a more complex mobile app which can support Facebook apps: This is the path of least resistance but leaves Facebook at the greatest mercy of Apple and Google, as well as forces Facebook to keep up with phone proliferation (iPhone 3G vs iPhone 3GS vs iPhone 4 vs DROID vs DROID 2 vs DROID X vs…)
Bottom-line: I don’t know if Facebook is even thinking about a bold mobile platform strategy, but if it is, I doubt it comes in the form of a full-fledged fbPhone. To me, it makes a lot more sense to stay the course and build more a sophisticated app in the short-term and, if needed, figure out ways to integrate rich user interface/development tool layers on an open operating system like Android or MeeGo.