Every few months, the Facebook Phone saga resurfaces with talk of a dedicated social device range, and as night follows day comes the suggestion that "a great Facebook app is all they need." All things being equal, it's a good argument: rather than step outside of the comfort zone of software development and attempt to figure the complexities of radio chipsets, mobile processors and carrier deals, Zuckerberg & Co. could focus on keeping the existing Facebook apps at the top of their game across iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Problem is, in the mobile market today, all things are certainly not equal.
Facebook has already marred its relationship with both Apple and Google over data access. In iOS, Apple opted to go with tight integration with Twitter, supposedly at least in part because of Facebook's reluctance to share access to its users. Facebook integration in Android was contentiously curtailed back in 2011 with Gingerbread on the Nexus S, after Google called the social network out over not allowing members to export their data in a predictable way.
And make no mistake, even with those troubled ties Facebook isn't exactly struggling to engage with mobile users. The site has seen an unpredicted surge in access from Facebookers on phones and tablets, to the point where it's roughly a 50-50 split between desktop and mobile. Its problem isn't getting people to log in, it's milking cash from them.
Facebook's mobile advertising strategy hasn't kept pace with user growth. Neither can it rely on Apple and Google to continue pushing it - or, indeed, to lend their support to Facebook Credits, the social network's payment method of choice - and in fact Google has its own Google+ rival which has the privileged preload spot in the Android setup wizard. The Facebook App Center, a way of wrapping web and native apps in the site's social clutches, is a start, but is likely to struggle to compete with the App Store and Play Market.
[aquote]Equality is out of the question[/aquote]
Equality, then, is out of the question, and it's little surprise that Facebook believes a direct pathway to users is the best solution. Yes, building a phone rather than a great app will take longer, be more expensive, and lead the site down all manner of unfamiliar avenues with hardware and carrier partners. The company will need a whole lot more than seven ex-Apple engineers to do it. But there's some interesting mobile tech up for grabs today, if you can look beyond the failures of others.
HP is loosing the reigns on webOS, open-sourcing the platform after it failed to make a convincing play with Palm's handiwork. As we've written before, the heavily HTML-centric OS could tie in nicely with Facebook's own web focus, especially given how the Facebook App Center treats HTML5 software as just as important as local apps. In fact, Facebook prefers web apps, given they're subject to the freedom of the browser rather than the tighter limitations of native code.
Meanwhile, if Google's grab for the core Enyo HTML5 team on the webOS project proves a turn-off, there's no shortage of ailing smartphone players already in the industry that Facebook could acquire with its $16bn IPO cash. HTC has long been linked with the Facebook Phone project, while INQ has a socially-enabled history of its own; both companies made their own interpretation of "Facebook phones" though saw limited market success. Even RIM could be a target, its current market cap representing the mildest of dints to the Facebook fund.
As many developers and services have discovered to their cost, having a great app isn't a guarantee for success. That's doubly so when you factor in a tenuous relationship with - and competition from - the key platforms. A Facebook Phone may well still result in a bad product, but it's one that Facebook itself would control the destiny of. That freedom from the whims of Apple and Google could be all the motivation Facebook needs.