Facebook’s IPO, webOS and the Perfect Social Phone

Feb 2, 2012
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Facebook's IPO filing gave us an inkling of how much money the social network expects to make when it floats this year, but also a hint of what it could spend it on: the first true Facebook Phone. In among the lengthy IPO documentation were not only details of Facebook's existing achievements in mobile but a map of the challenges yet to come along with Mark Zuckerberg's biggest fears for the future. $100m is enough to stage a big attack on the mobile market, though, and there's one obvious place to start: HP's webOS.

Facebook has plenty of mobile users - in fact in December 2011 over half of active members accessed the site via a mobile device - but it has very little control over that experience. So far, the social network hasn't even monetized them: mobile visitors don't see adverts, and in fact Facebook has cautioned potential investors that, if the current situation continues, it could actually see a reduction in revenue despite rising membership. However, it's being subject to the whims of Apple and Google that really cause sleepless nights.

"We are dependent on the interoperability of Facebook with popular mobile operating systems that we do not control, such as Android and iOS," Facebook wrote in its IPO filing. "Any changes in such systems that degrade our products’ functionality or give preferential treatment to competitive products could adversely affect Facebook usage on mobile devices."

The answer, of course, is to build a platform of Facebook's own: the until-now mythical Facebook Phone. Back in mid-2011, when HP was still floundering with webOS and receiving plenty of uninvited suggestions as to what it should do with the mobile platform, several people painted Facebook as a potential suitor. Then, the idea was that Facebook should buy webOS wholesale from HP, with the computer company likely to cut a good deal if it could get the platform off its hands.

[aquote]There's no need for Facebook to open its wallet - yet[/aquote]

Now, though, there's no need for Facebook to open its wallet - at least not initially. HP is giving webOS away, having released it under an open-source license. It also addresses an early criticism of the first bout of Facebook-buying-webOS speculation: that it would leave the social network responsible for not only maintaining its own mobile software and services, but a variety of apps out of its usual beat. Browser, email client, calendar app: they'd all have to be dealt with.

Under HP's open-source plans, though, it will take responsibility for keeping webOS up to date. In fact, the company has said we can expect a significant release every month for the next six or seven, and there'll be further attention beyond that too. Facebook already has arguably the best dedicated mobile app for its site on the TouchPad, too, a useful shortcut when its app strategy has, until now, been lackluster.

There'd be room in such a scheme for HP to profit, too. Back when the company announced it would be open-sourcing webOS, it also said it would wait to see what third-party adoption was like before deciding whether or not to build a new generation of devices on the platform. At the time, that seemed unlikely, with all the most obvious names each tied up in their own existing mobile strategy: HTC and Samsung had plenty on their hands with Android and Windows Phone, Apple has iOS, Nokia had thrown in with Microsoft, and LG was pushing away trying to reclaim market-share with what it already had.

If a significant name like Facebook jumped onboard, though, that could prove a major draw to webOS. Something certainly sufficient to get HP thinking about whether its own phones and/or tablets might make sense. webOS struggled for the large part because there was no single reason why it was better than Android or iOS: no one point of appeal that HP could build a promotional campaign around. Facebook's 800m users would certainly be an instant audience.

It'll take more than just open-source to get a webOS Facebook phone off the ground. After all, Android is free to use, and the social network is still believed to have struggled with that. The core problem at the time, it's suggested, was money: Facebook management had simply underestimated quite how much building a device from scratch costs.

Those naive failures pushed the company into the arms of HTC and others, resulting in devices like the Salsa and ChaCha; phones bearing the Facebook brand but with software entirely the handiwork of HTC itself and caution from Mark Zuckerberg that, rather than being the true "Facebook Phones", they were examples of how the social site could be integrated into mobile.

The opportunity to show the definitive example of that is finally coming together, though. Facebook will soon have the cash to invest significantly into a mobile strategy of its own, along with access to an OS that's been significantly under-developed but still has the backing of a major player in the computing space. Think of it as the social network's "Nexus" moment only, unlike Google, the focus isn't on the core software but the overall user experience. Your social life, the new Open Graph apps, Facebook's existing strengths in games, all colliding.

Facebook knows a huge part of its future will be taking social mobile. Soon enough, Mark Zuckerberg and Co. will have the cash to show its 800m+ users exactly how it believes Facebook on the move should look.

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