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Facebook Is Secretly Building A Phone (techcrunch.com)
102 points by MichaelApproved on Sept 19, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments

I don't understand where they're coming from. Android's Facebook integration is a little rough, but all the problems are with the Facebook application.

When it comes to the article's touted benefits of deep integration in the OS - calling a friend, deep syncing contacts, etc, Android does it all already.

I have it set to only sync contacts that are already in my phone, but if a friend texts me who has their number on Facebook, their picture shows up instantly, no syncing required. It's downright creepy to the point of making me seriously consider turning it off. OS integration is a solved problem. It's actually browsing Facebook that doesn't work.

They're thinking about revenue growth, not user happiness. Obviously they could just roll their own interface/dialer/contact list/etc for android if they wanted to just make a "fully integrated" experience.

You're spot on - I have trouble believing that they're really going to put in all the effort to build an entire OS when they could achieve exactly the same end result by merely finishing their freaking Android app.

Thus far, Facebook hasn't even proven that they can competently develop a mobile app, let alone an operating system. Even if the issue isn't talent, but resource allocation, are we really to expect that they're motivated enough to develop a mobile OS if the mobile experience hasn't been important enough to them until now to even finish their app?

Who says they have to build the whole OS? I bet it's just gonna be a variant on Android.

Awesome. Microsoft does search, Google does mobile OS, Apple does social networks, now Facebook does phones. Its an all out tech war.

This is what happens when you staff a company with brilliant "generalist" engineers.

Heed the warning folks, hire specialists or your startup will be making phones before you know it!

Every company attempts to expand until it can sell mobile phones. It really seems like a modern variant on Zawinski's Law of Software Envelopment, having displaced the dying medium of email.

Maybe "Building a mobile phone" is the new "Jump the Shark" for tech companies? And yes I'm giving a shout out Jon Hein.

Building a phone, the solution to all of the modern software company's problems.

Building a reliable network to support these phones, a solution to all of our connectivity problems.

If you think about it for a second, we still don't have that great mobile-only social app yet. The mobile versions of FB etc. won't cut it if the next 5-10 years are going to be all about mobile.

IMO, FB is extending its vertical with a mobile-only social app AKA the "FB OS."

"if the next 5-10 years are going to be all about mobile."

Yeah, if.

I don't buy this at all.

Apple has always been a hardware and software company with a very specific philosophy about user experience being everything. The digital music revolution gave Steve Jobs the opening to create the iPod that basically resurrected the company. That ply has been extended into phones and mobile computing.

Google is (from a revenue perspective) a search and advertising company. Their business model is predicated on how much you use the internet. So what Google is concerned with is everything between you and the internet. They've done Chrome, Android, etc to commoditize every link in that chain. Everything they do is about you using the internet easier, cheaper, in more places or more often.

Microsoft is about one thing and one thing only: selling Windows and Office licenses to enterprise and OEM customers. Nothing else matters. Look at the Kin: they bought Danger (with its once successful Sidekick) but then spent the better part of two years rewriting its OS as some Frankenstein version of Windows mobile. It arrived way too late and was dead before the first unit was sold (in large part due to the enormous data costs that Verizon saddled it with as they'd lost patience with the delay). Windows Phone 7 has the same goals.

Facebook is all about capturing and cultivating your relationships. They are a silo. They want to own that data because that data is their business and their entire value. Integration with everything else is about allowing other people to give Facebook more data.

What sense does a mobile platform make in that context? Absolutely none that I can see. How does it let them capture and control more data? Apple has had huge success with the iPhone because they have the industrial design, UI experience, supply chain management (which shouldn't be underestimated), iTunes (as much as many--including me--hate the application it is a near-monopoly in digital content) and retail channel.

For Facebook to succeed in the mobile space they would need most if not all of these things. It's a huge risk for relatively little gain and a small payoff. I can only thing that by leveraging a mobile platform of their own they could essentially lock out other platforms. The problem is that Facebook is usable with any Web browser.

I can't imagine Facebook doing any more than controlling the Facebook experience on all mobile platforms, an area they're still sadly lacking in (iPad app anyone?).

Basically this makes as much sense as Twitter making a mobile phone.

A phone could give FB plenty of new chances to capture data. What if, instead of sending a text message to someone, the FB phone sends a FB message or initiates a FB live chat session with them instead. If the FB phone became ubiquitious enough, they could challenge the space currently owned by texting (which would be really annoying for developers and the market, but great for FB). FB locks everyone in, AND they get to use all that social data too.

SMS is so ubiquitous because everyone with a (mobile) phone number can use it. IM always had this problem: some of your friends on MSN, some on AIM, etc.

I certainly agree there are opportunities for better FB integration into mobile devices but I don't think that translates to a viable business in making mobile phones (imho).

It's a bit like developing your own OS to compete with Windows because you want a better version of Outlook.

Facebook is all about capturing and cultivating your relationships. They are a silo. They want to own that data because that data is their business and their entire value. Integration with everything else is about allowing other people to give Facebook more data.

That's a very poor analogy--selling Macs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, Windows, Office, and AdWords are profitable and lucrative business models, while owning social data is only a potential basis for a future business model. How do you turn that social data into revenue? Sell phones to your users with a persistent connection to the social graph? That's a reasonable pivot. The social graph is a value-add to the phone, not an end in itself, not until they find some other way of monetizing it.

"...--selling Macs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, Windows, Office, and AdWords are profitable and lucrative business models, while owning social data is only a potential basis for a future business model."


Has there even been an entity having only "a potential basis for a future business model" that has grown so large it can out to whole other industries?

What sense does a mobile platform make in that context? Absolutely none that I can see. How does it let them capture and control more data?

It opens the possibility for more location-based services, and therefore more location data. I can imagine a mobile "Like" button that when pressed reports your current location a la Foursquare. A location-aware mobile platform would also create some interesting tie-ins with Facebook games/apps. For example, go to Home Depot and hit the "Like" button on your phone and get more fertilizer in FarmVille,

But Facebook can/does already do all that on existing mobile platforms. Developers are usually more than happy to use tools provided by Facebook in exchange for getting easy social features and access to FB's social graph. Widespread use in 3rd party apps on all mobile platforms will give Facebook a much larger reach, for much less effort, than trying to launch their own phone.

I didn't make it clear in my earlier post, but I was thinking a physical context-aware "Like" button on the phone, like the search button on Android phones.

You're right though, all of these features can be achieved on existing phones, but at a much higher price point. The article suggests that Facebook is targeting the $50 phone market to get the phones into as many hands as possible. That's a different market from the BlackBerry/Android/iPhone/Windows Phone market. It sounds like the KIN strategy.

Kin comparisons hit the nail on the head.

Not what Kin turned out to be, but what Kin was originally intended to be: the phone that is to social networking what the Blackberry is to enterprise email.

As mentioned in the grandparent post, Microsoft's dragged-out WinMo refactoring of Kin cost them their original deal with Verizon, but there's no reason Facebook couldn't negotiate a similar or even better deal for cheap data plans for the Farmville crowd. What Facebook would have to do to stand a chance is to go head-to-head with prepaid MVNOs and outgun them on features and Facebook integration while staying roughly within their price range.

The problem with the Kin was that it ultimately became lost in delusions of competing with mainstream smartphones instead of concentrating on its core competencies. The Facebook phone would have to have no such illusions, competing instead with two-year-old Kyocera featurephones that kids buy for $39.95 contract-free, but delivering a much better Facebook experience for very little more.

I was wondering the other day, does Facebook store the chat history? Is it legal for them to keep that data?

FB has the most complete contact list for a lot of people. It would be pretty cool if my phonebook ran off this and auto updates itself when people change their numbers.

It would. I currently use my Gmail contacts for this. Android integration is excellent. iPhone integration is decent.

To borrow a term I heard from Mark Suster though, it's a FNAC (feature, not a company).

Think about the supply chain, inventory management, retail distribution, OS development and so on that would need to go into this. I simply don't believe the business case for an FB phone exists. What's more, I don't believe FB believes it is either.

The blackberry facebook app attempts this, but it's not actually that useful. Variations in spellings of names confuse it, the 'type' of number (work, mobile etc.) can cause duplicates and a lot of my friends no longer store any useful contact details on facebook due to privacy concerns.

Some of these might be implementation issues, but I still don't think that even working perfectly it would be a killer feature for a phone.

Android phones with HTC Sense UI do this. It's pretty cool, it pulls a bunch of data (E-Mail address, birthday, last status message) and integrates them into your contacts. They also pull the profile image from Facebook and it's displayed when you get called.

My "Google experience" Droid 1 does it too.

So does my Droid 2. I assumed this was part of Android 2.2.

Good ol Palm Pre does this as well.

As did my Nexus.

If they offered it as the premier messaging device, with all of your FB chat contacts auto loaded then it would surely appeal to the younger generations.

The only reason kids now days buy Blackberrys over iPhones is because Blackberry has BBM, a chat feature they want.

In terms of market share, this could attack the same user as the Sidekick did years ago. The ultimate messaging and social device.

Google has a phone and an upcoming SN-type-project in the works.

Apple has a phone and attempted a music SN.

FB has only a social network.

It seems like it could be a step in the right direction for FB, even if just to be able to compete with Google Me + Android integration

You're line of thinking is I think quite similar to Google's. Google seems to have this mindset of having no dependence on any outside party.

I can understand this from Google as it fits into their internet commoditization goal.

Apple's SN is all about selling more music, which is a core business for them. But to compare Apple and Google, Apple doesn't have a search engine.

WRT Ping, it's two biggest problems are:

1. Lack of FB integration; and

2. It's tied to an app (iTunes).

Apple wants (1). Betas had Facebook Connect. Rumour has it Facebook had "onerous" terms for the integration so it got killed. Lack of it is a huge problem. But that should tell you something: Apple needs FB because FB owns the much-vaunted social graph.

Sure some juicy rumours to awaken speculators interest as facebook IPO is drawing closer ...

What's funny is that when I saw the title I immediately assumed it was a TechCrunch "article" (meaning "linkbait"). And of course it is.

> 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.

What? Apples and oranges. Apple designed the hardware, they're a hardware company. What TechCrunch?

Bless techcrunch's heart, they do not understand the difference between outsourcing design and manufacturing, that is what happened to the crunchpad!

But they outsource the actual manufacturing to FoxConn.

The point is that outsourcing the manufacturing (like Apple) is extremely different from outsourcing the hardware design. That the iPhone's hardware and software is designed under one roof is a huge advantage. It's extremely unlikely that Facebook has hired out the hardware engineering and industrial design teams needed to go the Apple route. If they were doing that, someone would have probably noticed by now.

Why the down votes? I was simply pointing out what TC might have meant by "building". Everyone and their mother knows Apple doesn't outsource hardware design.

Right, like everyone else.

The thing is, everyone I know uses Facebook the website but hates Facebook the company. I don't see the Facebook brand selling phones (I recall they rated on the bottom of brands in some study).

People hate everything. The big banks and airlines all rate at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys, and yet they're big because everyone does a lot of business with them. People complain, but they don't change who they do business with.

I think a Facebook phone will be massively successful on name alone.

Pretty much everyone needs to deal with a bank, so in a way it doesn't matter that they all have customer satisfaction issues, since people have to put up with it. If a bank gets really bad, people will switch (I think it'd have to get really bad, since switching seems overly painful for me personally - then again, I'm Canadian and our banks work a bit differently than in the states). If all the banks suck - or at least, as you say, the "big banks" who obviously have the biggest mind share - then people just sort of put up with it.

The same goes for airlines. If you're in the position where you're considering flying, pretty much all of your options suck anyway. By this, I mean that if I didn't fly home (a two hour flight), my next best option is to travel by train, which is comparable in price, takes 10x more of my time, and is (warning: unsourced memory of something I may have misread) actually les safe than flying. Flying is a hassle, but its typically an infrequent one, and it's a lot better than its alternatives.

Phones, however, are pretty much a dime a dozen, and the range of products is immense.

I've had a "dumb phone" for four years, and I don't really have a reason to upgrade. I can call, I can text, and if I really really need to I have web access on a browser that makes Lynx seem state of the art. This is enough for me.

For those who want a "smart phone" there are already great options:

- Blackberry is still a big name, and when I tried out my dads a few months ago, I liked it and considered buying one of my own. - Apple is now the big name and iPhone has huge mind share (I can't speak to its market share off the top of my head) and people who like Apple like it a lot. - Google is a trusted name, and they're marketing the hell out of Android. Their sales are pretty decent IIRC, and they're growing.

My point here is that there are already three large, established names that can compete "on name alone." The Facebook name, in a lot of circles, doesn't have a great reputation, particularly when talking about privacy.

I'm sure there are people out there who would buy a Facebook phone purely based on the name, but there are an awful lot who would do the opposite. Personally, when I saw the title "Facebook is Secretly Building a Phone," my first thought was "...and I would never buy it." That's based entirely on the Facebook name, based on my perception of the company.

I don't think you realize that most people love Facebook and simply don't understand that there is privacy issue. They log in, see their friends, and play Farmville. A phone will let them do that when they're away from home.

An actual study says different:


...slightly miffed at the traction gotten by "you're a geek so your opinion doesn't reflect the average..."

Change takes time. People started seriously thinking about/hating big banks right after the financial collapse, so it's only been about 2 years.

As a simple example more people are starting to use credit unions: http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100...

Change is never instant, it takes time for alternatives to develop and for people to buy in.

People started seriously thinking about/hating big banks right after the financial collapse, so it's only been about 2 years.

Not true at all. The Consumerist has had a category for each of the big banks forever. People hate those overdraft fees.

everyone you/I know = 0.00000001% of Facebook's users.

I would imagine he does have more than 0.05 friends (based on 500 million users)

Haha, should've known someone will apply that arbitrarily typed bit.

I'm still waiting for the long-rumored Facebook gmail-killer. Wasn't there a rumor of a Facebook browser at one point too? So I'm not holding my breath on this one-although a Facebook-branded version of Android might make sense.

I know from a FOAF^n that FB-mail is real and they are planning to launch soon.

Assuming this is accurate, I think it makes a lot of sense, especially if it's based on Android. As it is, the bulk of people I see on laptops, iPads and iPhones in cafes are just using them as Facebook devices anyway. They might as well make it official.

On another note, if I see or hear the phrase "Web-based operating system" one more time I swear I'm going to lose it. Fine, great, it's a browser-based desktop: that's cool. Or, there is no desktop, there's just a web browser with a poorly debugged set of device drivers underneath[1]: that's cool too.

But a website does not an operating system make. ARGH!

[1] i had no idea my blog was the #3 result for that phrase on Google until just now. [2]

[2] I wrote the aforementioned blog entry four years ago when I still worked at Microsoft. I was dead wrong, at least for a lot of scenarios.

It is probably based on Android if this is true. I remember seeing @joehewitt working on Android. See for example: http://twitter.com/joehewitt/status/20691624768

Or if anything, they're just rewriting the Facebook Android app.

I'll bet its not a hardware phone. Rather a kind of Skype/Google Voice feature that will be added to its mobile clients. On your Facebook app for iphone example, there will be a new icon called "Phone" in addition to the existing News Feed, Inbox, Events, Photos etc.

This is the most intelligent interpretation I've seen so far. It makes excellent sense.

I'm probably going to be dead wrong about this (based on my track record), but I think this will be a total-loss.

Facebook is not a hardware provider any more than google is, if google can't put the N1 out there and make it work I have a hard time to understand how a site like facebook would be able to.

They should concentrate on improving their applications on existing mobiles in stead of rolling out a mobile of their own.

I'm with you 100% on this. I think tech companies see Apple's success and want a piece of that pie. Unfortunately I think they underestimate how much of a fluke Apple's success actually is.

As long as distribution and manufacturing are outsourced to an experienced third-party, I think a Facebook Phone that has service and hardware priced below the iPhone can be successful. It also doesn't have to sell a lot (a small sliver of the mobile pie is massive), would have a lock-in advantage, and would offer considerable advertising potential.

My gut says Facebook wouldn't do this because they seem to have very high product and engineering standards and want to deliver high-end experiences which would require high-end devices and software.

But will Facebook be willing to open up their social phone to other networks like twitter or will it just be Facebook contacts? I think a device unassociated with a particular network has a better shot since it'd be willing to open up to all networks and give a better experience.

Ah, this might explain why their apps and mobile site are such crap.

This could be a popular gadget if done right. "Facebook Phone" is instantly understandable by any FB user, whereas it's not at all clear to them that they can fully use FB on an iPhone/BlackBerry/Android (and indeed, they can't).

They could make it tiny and cheap, which might capture customers that just want a smartphone for social stuff. It would be hard for any mobile app to consistently match the user experience, especially if FB keeps adding features.

They could even do simple third party apps, just like they do on the web site.

Letts' Law: All programs evolve until they can send email.

Zawinski's Law: Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail.

I propose a new law: Every website calling itself a platform will attempt to incorporate the functionality of all other platforms that are popular at the time.

Having a phone for your platform is just another silly functionality that may or may not pan out in the end for any given platform.

It's an inevitable next step for any platform looking to invest in something/anything/i-have-ho-idea-what-do-do-now.

Everything evolve until they got a Linux heart.

So the protocol seems to be that strong web platforms want to themselves loosen up their dependence on their OS platforms: browsers, operating systems, etc..., so taken to an extreme the right thing to do is build a hardware platform? A little extreme, no?

It makes for a good plan B, but who thinks that creating yet another competing platform in the mobile space is a good thing for Facebook, at this point? Right now they have a very comfortable position on iPhone, Android, and Phone 7, with the biggest risk for platform subversion coming from Google. That still leaves them two viable platforms on mobile, with virtually no conflicts of interest coming from Apple, and possibly none from Microsoft either. (Okay, Ping, but I don't think Apple's ambitions for Ping are anything beyond boosting iTunes sales.) Now not only will they introduce another platform, but they will turn their existing platforms hostile against them. It's the kind of behavior that will land Bing as the default operating system in future releases of iPhone.

Possible responses: a Facebook phone OS might push Google to do a deep Google Me integration into Android, thus forcing most Android users to at least give Google Me a try, which hurts Facebook. It might force Apple to make Mobile Me free, and then integrate deep photo sharing and commenting into iPhoto and iOS. Since a plurality of college students own Macs and iPod touches already, Apple has very powerful platform control that can cause trouble for Facebook should Facebook be perceived as a threat to iOS. I don't see either of these response scenarios being particularly profitable for Facebook.

This can get very, very nasty. As they said in Godfather, "Nobody wants all out war."

Actually it looks like Android will be basis for Facebook's phone.


Unless FB are considering making it impossible for others to access it's API, building a phone seems like a better deal for Facebook than it does for it's users.

It's the twitter problem all over again; they want their data and network/platform to be ubiquitous but while reaping all the eyeball revenue from being the frontend of choice and making every other client second-class.

Not to forget Google.

Android is by some metrics a good platform, but I do wonder whether it's going to be the revenue generating channel that they seem to hope it will be.

The most significant concept the article touched on was the potential to call people rather than their numbers. I think at this point it'll be hard to get beyond what Apple and Google are already doing on that front, however, as they already allow one to call Julie's Mobile.

The next stage would have to be calling Julie in a sort of Google Voice type of way, where her location isn't even an issue. At that point you could just call a person, but until then there will still be a need to define which location to call them on.

I wrote something about this type of convergence a while back called the Water, Steam, and Ice of Communication: http://danielmiessler.com/blog/the-steam-water-and-ice-of-mo...

I can't remember the last time I called someone via their number. What a ridiculous statement!£

Facebook released a statement claiming this techcrunch article is inaccurate http://mashable.com/2010/09/19/facebook-we-are-not-building-...

Does this remind anyone else of the Peek? http://www.twitterpeek.com/

It seems like this might make Facebook more accessible for some group of Facebook users who aren't so computer savy. A dedicated device where you don't have to login, but you can see your families updates, interact, send messages, see pictures.

Also just did a quick check: http://whois.domaintools.com/facebookOS.com It's been registered since 2007, so it's certainly not something that's been off the radar from them.

"All we know for sure is that Hewitt and Papakipos are working on something very stealthy together. And we have a source that tells us that stealthy thing is a Facebook phone."

The rest is all Arrington's speculation.

Is "stuff people want" == being owned by some company? I rather doubt it, but then again, human nature is full of surprises. For example, a lot of people might want to be told what to do.

I really wish they'd just fix their own software first... There are 4 different ways of accessing FB on my Android (app, touch, mobile full website), each and every one of them suck and in a different way. If I want to check my events - I have to use one, if want to delete a rushed post - has to use another..... annoying doesn't even start to describe it.

I doubt this is true, but I hope it is. The more non-carrier companies with money in the wireless space the better. Maybe AT&T and the rest of them will have to give up some control when every major software company is competing for it.

In six months: the Oracle phone. You heard it here first.

I dont think if users out there consider fb friend list as their contact list (users add bunch of people they dont even know or they hardly know them). I dont see it as a real smartphone, may be another social networking gadget.

Didn't everyone see this coming? Isn't like 30% of iPhone app usage in Facebook?

Since that "I Like" button campaign, Facebook's target is clear: Google. The mobile sector is not yet fully taken. So it seems logical to hit in that direction, if you have the power and user base like Facebook has.

I've been waiting for this for years- it always seemed so obvious to me. Had Facebook done this a few years ago, I think it would have been a huge preemptive strike against the iPhone (and possibly Foursquare). After all, Facebook has the UX skills combined with massive amounts of data.

Now, though, it comes off more as a "me too" move.

Hopefully it's built on Android. Even if it looks and works nothing like Android, it's one less platform developers have to worry about when creating an app. I mean, imagine if developers had to create a separate version of their site for IE, Firefox, Safari, etc.

(Of course, my opinions are even more speculative than the original post- I'll wait until I actually see it to judge it.)

If they do apps, I bet they will work more like the apps on the site: very high level, markup for UI, thin client, server backed. This will keep the phone cheap, the software simple, and is conducive to the kind of social apps they want.

Surprised that the former lead of the Chrome OS project isn't barred from working on another OS project for a potential competitor by any sort of non-compete agreement.

I believe, and IANAL, in California non-competes are not enforceable anyway. Ref: Edwards vs. Arthur Andersen

Could it be that the phones would be intended for parts of the world where not everyone owns a computer? It would get more people onto Facebook.

Prior to building a Phone, I think FB should roll-out a mobile browser.

wondering, when the facebook chat will stop sucking ?

Sounds like another Kin. I don't want Facebook integrated deeply with my phone that would be intrusive, it's there when I need it.

I don't think it would be aimed at the type of person who reads stuff here or anyone who reads techcrunch.

Mobile-device-as-a-service? Why not, half-billion users is enough to try.

Like a Kindle just for one kind of activity - reading, it could something like an iPad with only one big app.

Seems line the history repeats itself and we're heading back to the future from an era of general web sites in a universal browser to a closed world of connected devices. ^_^

I think most people want a swiss army knife, a device that can do everything. They don't want to lug around a bunch of devices, each of which does one thing and does it well. That's probably why the iPhone is so popular; It's a phone, mp3 player, camera, browser, everything you can think, except it doesn't have a corkscrew.

Except the only reason the Kindle succeeds as a single-use device is that an e-ink screen is a significant feature for e-reading (i.e. the hardware is the seller).

I finally opened a Facebook account years ago when I became convinced they kept private info private, now they are making private info public by default, and I no longer trust them. I certainly won't be buying a phone from them.

Facebook is growing more powerful than Google.

For that reason specifically, I think they would have some serious hassle from the FCC if they wanted to bring a phone to market.

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