Facebook already has over 150 million mobile users and is likely the most popular iPhone app of all time.But if Facebook is going to have as much impact on the mobile world as it has on the web, it needs to become a platform, and not just a service. And that’s precisely why Facebook is working on its own mobile phone software.
During my recent trip to Silicon Valley, the idea of a Facebook phone is one of the juicier, wackier rumours I heard about. But before I could dig up any details, TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington has the scoop: He reports that Facebook is working on mobile phone software, with star employees Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos supposedly working on the secret project.
But, bigger picture, based on my conversations with current and former Facebook executives, I believe that building a customised mobile phone platform is absolutely in Facebook’s ambitions, for several reasons:
Facebook needs to be a platform, not a service. Facebook just doesn’t have enough weight on your phone right now, via its mobile website and its apps. Facebook wants to be built into the operating system, to make your contact list better, and to make boring features more social. That’s how it can continue to accelerate its growth and make itself irreplaceable.
Facebook couldn’t have a “FarmVille”-like success in today’s current phone ecosystem. Because Facebook doesn’t control the mobile platform — Apple, Google, RIM, etc. do — it can’t the basis for huge, money-printing social apps like it does on the web. Facebook doesn’t want people playing “We Farm” on their iPhones and using iTunes for payments: It wants to be powering payments, app distribution, promotion, advertising, etc., the way it does on the web. That is where the power is.
Facebook is increasingly competitive with Google and Apple, which both have their own phone platforms, and if Facebook is going to be one of the titans of the Internet going forward, it only makes sense to build a phone platform. Apple and Google are both getting deeper into the “social” game, via Apple’s Ping and Game centre, and Google’s Buzz and forthcoming secret social network. There will be an all-out war at some point. (Don’t think that Facebook and Apple don’t have hard feelings over Ping, for example.) Facebook could be at a severe disadvantage without its own mobile platform.
Apple and Google won’t let Facebook into the guts of their operating system, so if Facebook is going to show consumers what a “social” phone REALLY looks like, it needs to build its own. And since Facebook isn’t really partners with Google or Apple, it can risk pissing them off.
Facebook thinks phones need to be more social than they are, and Apple and Google and everyone else are doing a crappy job at it.
Facebook already has most of the features of a good phone in their platform, and better than most everyone else in mobile. Messaging, location, profiles, photos, etc.
Facebook just stole a guy from Google Android — Erick Tseng — to run its mobile products division. Tseng could have taken any job in the world, or started his own company, but he took this one. It couldn’t be because Facebook had small plans here.
Wait, but isn’t it too late to build a brand new smartphone platform from scratch? Maybe — it’s getting there. Facebook probably should have started this a long time ago.
But if there’s any company with the brand reach to get people to try something new — especially the majority of people out there who have never even owned a smartphone — it’s Facebook. And if there’s any company willing to dream enough and do good-enough work to make this successful, it could be Facebook.
Will Facebook just re-work Android with a “social” layer on top to make its platform? Or partner with someone else? Or is it truly starting from scratch? All are good ideas for different reasons, so I wouldn’t be surprised by either. Facebook will obviously need to find partners, including phone manufacturers and carriers, but based on its sheer size, that shouldn’t be a problem. (Update: Facebook is using Android “for sure,” says a plugged-in Silicon Valley source.)
So while this project could obviously get canceled — it’s crazy ambitious — I think it’s too important for Facebook not to make it work somehow. Or at very least, to scare Apple and/or Google into giving Facebook a deeper presence on its phones. But don’t hold your breath on that one.
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