Why would Facebook design a phone?

Many of Facebook's subscribers already use their smartphones to access the service through a Web browser or application. See more cell phone pictures.
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According to social networking Web site Facebook, more than 150 million people access the site using mobile devices. To put it in perspective, there are more than 500 million active Facebook users, half of which log on to the site each day. Those mobile subscribers are also twice as active as the site's non-mobile users. Crunching these statistics, that means about 60 percent of those interacting with Facebook each day are probably doing so on a mobile device [source: Facebook].

With numbers like that, it's clear that Facebook has a good reason to put more innovation into its mobile software. As of Oct. 4, 2010, Facebook for iPhone and Blackberry were in the top 20 most popular mobile downloads according to CNET, each having been in the top 50 for two years [source: CNET].

On Sept. 19, 2010, TechCrunch Founder and Co-editor Michael Arrington published an article stating that a "source who has knowledge of the project" said that Facebook is involved in the creation of a mobile phone. The company isn't building the hardware, Arrington explained, but is working on a new operating system for a phone. Arrington reported that Facebook hopes to make deep connections into a phone's core functions, including the contacts list. Other details in the article included the names of people rumored to be working on the project and guesses as to what it would look like and cost [source: Arrington].

The rumor spread over the next 48 hours with articles at technical news Web sites around the world. CNET followed up the same day saying that Facebook spokesman Jaime Schopflin denied that Facebook was "building a phone." Schopflin did state that Facebook thought "integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems" was a way of bringing a social aspect to all experiences. Schopflin also confirmed that the developers mentioned in Arrington's article were working indeed working on the software [source: Musil].

The buzz stayed strong once it became clear there was more fact than fiction to the rumor. Go on to the next page to read what tech experts have learned about the possible Facebook phone.

 

Separating Fact from Rumor

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Education Nation summit on Sept. 27, 2010.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Education Nation summit on Sept. 27, 2010.
AP Photo/Richard Drew

In the days following Michael Arrington's Facebook phone rumor at TechCrunch, there was a lot of fact-checking and follow-up reporting from experienced tech industry reporters. CNET Editor-in-chief Scott Ard speculated that the rumor might indicate only the earliest of planning stages. Ard explained that in the months prior to the rumor, Facebook was just starting to explore the concept with manufacturers and carriers. Ard also reminded readers of other Facebook rumors that never came true, like the 2008 rumor that the site was building a music service feature [source: Ard].

Three days into the rumor, Bloomberg reported more details. Bloomberg cited London-based INQ Mobile Ltd. as the target hardware manufacturer and AT&T as a possible U.S. service carrier for a Facebook phone. It also stated that the initial market for the phone would be Europe in March or April 2011 with the United States following in July or August. While Bloomberg's Facebook sources had nothing to say about specific models, they did confirm that the phones would run on the Android open source mobile platform [source: Kharif, Womack, Bensinger].

Arrington may have been accused of starting the rumor, but he followed up on it. Arrington, along with TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid, accepted an invitation to sit down with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and "clear the air." In the interview, Zuckerberg explained Facebook's plans and goals and clarified the facts [source: Arrington].

As of this article, written about two weeks later, here's the summary of what we know about the "Facebook phone" plan, mostly thanks to the Zuckerberg interview:

  • Facebook is building a platform based on the Android mobile operating system.
  • Facebook has a horizontal strategy of building a social layer that every application can use, extending across the Web, mobile phones and other devices.
  • Facebook is emphasizing HTML5 as a way to develop across platforms.
  • The only confirmed relationship between Facebook and INQ Mobile is one of aiding the handset manufacturer with Facebook integration on its devices, which INQ advertises as social networking phones.
  • The Facebook staff confirmed to be working on the project are Erick Tseng, former lead product manager for Android at Google, Matthew Papakipos, former director on the Chrome OS project at Google, and established Facebook developer Joe Hewitt.

If Facebook built a phone, how well would it do in the marketplace? Read on to see whether a platform featuring Facebook could be the next big thing for mobile phones.

Would a Facebook phone be successful?

With its new platform, Facebook aims to create a new kind of experience for social networking on mobile phones.
With its new platform, Facebook aims to create a new kind of experience for social networking on mobile phones.
Hemera/Thinkstock

As mentioned earlier in this article, Facebook has more than 500 million active users, 250 million people checking in daily and 150 million using Facebook on mobile devices. That's a lot of social networking! If all of the 150 million mobile users are checking in daily, they make up 60 percent of that daily total.

Phone manufacturers have already capitalized on this market. Facebook has produced successful mobile applications for Apple, Blackberry and Android devices. Apple even uses Facebook in its iPhone commercials. Phone manufacturer INQ Mobile has taken a bold step further, producing phones targeted to mobile social networking with Facebook as one of its featured applications.

The success of INQ and of Facebook mobile applications implies that mobile social networking is a big market and will continue to grow. Facebook's platform aims to integrate social networking in everything users do on the phone, not just their direct use of Facebook. Can this deeper level of integration be successful?

The success of other mobile social networking applications implies the answer is "yes." For example, there are dozens of applications for Twitter, and Twitter's short message format makes the mobile experience like sending a text message to the world. Plus, applications like Foursquare and Yelp turned mobility itself into a social experience. If Facebook is able to integrate the phone's basic functions with applications like these, it could make Facebook the front page for all other social networking experiences.

Facebook could run into some possible pitfalls with its platform, though. One is that the social networking site is notorious for privacy issues. If you're suspicious about your privacy on Facebook by itself, you're not likely going to buy a phone that could potentially expose your contacts and whereabouts to the world.

Another possible pitfall is that the Facebook platform doesn't offer a new-enough Facebook experience. Facebook applications are already available for many Internet-capable hand-held devices. Plus, there are other applications that use Facebook's application programming interface (API) to post things to Facebook for users automatically. Some contact manager applications for phones are already integrating social networking. For a Facebook platform to be successful, then, it must provide a new and useful experience for the user.

For now, it's a difficult call. Facebook could find just the right combination of features and message to become a big success in the mobile market. If not, it could fall the way of projects like the Palm Pre and the Microsoft Kin. Head over to the next page for lots more information about the Facebook phone.

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Sources

  • Ard, Scott. "Facebook mulling a branded smartphone." CNET. CBS Interactive. Sept. 19, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2010)http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-20016916-93.html
  • Arrington, Michael. "Facebook Is Secretly Building A Phone." TechCrunch. Sept. 19, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2010)http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/19/facebook-is-secretly-building-a-phone/
  • Arrington, Michael. "Interview With Mark Zuckerberg On The 'Facebook Phone.'" Sept. 22, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2010)http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/22/zuckerberg-interview-facebook-phone/
  • CNET. "Most popular Mobile downloads." (Oct. 4, 2010)http://download.cnet.com/mobile/most-popular/3101-20_4-0.html
  • Facebook. "Press Room: Statistics." (Oct. 4, 2010)http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
  • Frommer, Dan. "Facebook's Secret Phone Is Using Android 'For Sure.'" Business Insider, Inc. Sept. 19, 2010. (Oct. 4, 2010)http://www.businessinsider.com/facebooks-secret-phone-is-android-for-sure-2010-9
  • INQ Mobile. "Phones." (Oct. 4, 2010)http://www.inqmobile.com/en/
  • Kharif, Olga, Womack, Brian, and Bensinger, Greg. "Facebook Said to Be Working on Phones with INQ for AT&T." Bloomberg L.P. Sept. 22, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2010)http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-09-23/facebook-is-said-to-be-working-with-inq-on-smartphones-that-at-t-may-carry.html
  • Musil, Steven. "Facebook denies 'Facebook phone' report." CNET. CBS Interactive. Sept. 19, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2010)http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-20016912-93.html