July 21st, 2015
I am willing to concede that there will probably be a Facebook phone. The likelihood doesn’t make the idea any less ridiculous, but I’ve read enough tea leaves to believe the social media giant is now hell-bent on muscling its way into the mobile handset market, no matter the cost. And I think I finally understand why.
Location, Location, Location
Facebook mobile ad revenue took a huge leap in the fourth quarter of 2012. That’s tremendously good news for a company that knows it can’t win without mobile. Still, Facebook is a mere passenger on smartphones. Despite the fact that one in seven people in the world use Facebook, it’s just one of many competing apps on any given phone and quite a few of them are competing for your social media attention.
Studies show that teens, the audience Facebook may desire most, are leaving the social network for something less boring and perhaps less capricious (my own daughter abandoned it when they changed how she could manage her Harry Potter fan pages).
Those youths are migrating to platforms like Tumblr, which really isn’t a social network per seand upstarts like Keek and Snapchat. The latter is not nearly as rich an environment as Facebook. It simply lets users converse in images and gifs that they create and manipulate on the fly. It’s clearly the thing of the moment, while Facebook is now the established, aging giant.
Like Tumblr, Facebook is for many — teens and otherwise — a mobile experience. Hand anyone a tablet or smartphone and they may never check their social feeds on the desktop again. More importantly, Facebook said last year that mobile users are nearly twice as likely to log onto Facebook as their desk-bound counterparts.
There was no clearer indication that Facebook got this message loud and clear than Facebook’s new news feed, which was designed for mobile first, with larger screens on desktops and laptops inheriting all the design queues.
Even so, offering Facebook users an experience more aligned with their everyday mobile activities is not enough, certainly not for Facebook.
Welcome to Facebook World
Facebook wants to be a platform and, more and more, it has all the earmarks of one. In addition to all the traditional social media tools (posts and updates, likes, photos and videos, status messages, chats, pokes, birthday reminders), there are apps, commerce (buy everything from movies to cupcakes), powerful graph search, location-based services (including check-ins). The service has the potential to touch every part of our lives.
But it’s all for naught if you can simply turn Facebook off, or at the very least, minimize or sideline it while you do something else on your favorite mobile device.
Facebook’s desire for ubiquity is not so much about everyone in the world using it — it’s about being ubiquitous in your world. If it can do that, Facebook has a better chance of being “Johnny on the spot” when you need the perfect local ad or local commerce deal (“that gift you’re shopping for is 500 feet away and half off!”).
A Facebook phone, one, which, though not built by Facebook (see all the HTC rumors), finally puts Facebook in control. It becomes like the Force in Star Wars, “It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together,” and it becomes inescapable.
Imagine every action — not just “I’m watching,” “I’m listening to” and “I’m reading” — being telegraphed to all your contacts — inside and out of Facebook. A Facebook platform could ostensibly see all phone activities. This sounds like a privacy nightmare, but also achieves Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s goal of making all sharing frictionless (and, perhaps, unstoppable).
A few years ago INQ showed a butt-ugly Facebook phone that sought to integrate Facebook services as deeply as possible with the phone’s OS. It took Facebook calendar events (“It’s Mary’s Birthday!”) and integrated them with an Android phones calendar. It refashioned the entire Android interface to support Facebook activities, prompts and alerts. It also never made it to the U.S.
Facebook, however, never abandoned the dream. In fact, I think its desire to control the mobile experience is even stronger today.
Still a Bad Idea
While I now understand Facebook’s desire, I still think it’s an awful idea.
No matter what, if Facebook enters the phone market, it’s competing with other handset manufacturers. Even in the Android space, which is bustling with competition, this seems like a bad idea. Facebook shouldn’t compete with these guys, it should ensure that the Facebook experience on every single Android phone is stellar. Instead, reports have it that it will launch an HTC phone with AT&T as the carrier.
A Facebook Android phone amounts to the social network choosing sides. In the U.S. Apple, iOS and the iPhone have played a crucial role in Facebook’s expansion and adoption, but Facebook’s move seems to indicate that it prefers one platform over another. That’s not the case, of course — it’s simply that Apple would never consider rebranding one if its mobile devices.
And what about Microsoft? Facebook is pretty tight with its friend and investor, but Facebook didn’t choose Windows Phone as the platform for the new Facebook Phone. Obviously, Facebook was looking for scale. Android gives them that and then some.
Also, choosing HTC and what will likely be a low-cost phone positions Facebook for excellent growth, not here in the U.S., but in emerging markets. (Smartphone growth in the U.S. has flattened out while adoption everywhere else continues to rise.)
Making It Attractive
Some believe Facebook may even try to give away the phone and create ultra-low-cost data plans with rumored partner AT&T. If they do that, Facebook will likely pay a lot up front, taking a fairly significant loss on the phone as it pays HTC for the hardware, AT&T for carrier fees and initial data use. However, they could all make their money back if users have to pay for any data they consume outside the Facebook platform walled garden – and Facebook gets a cut.
If so, that plan, too could be a recipe for disaster as teen parents gets slapped with a $200 monthly data bill because Joey spent most of his time on Tumblr.
All we really know for certain right now is that Facebook wants to unveil its new “Home on Android.” That could be just a chunk of software that all Android partners can pre-install on their phones, but after three years of rumors, there’s too much smoke to deny the fire and the flame that is Facebook Phone. Whether it’ll set the World on fire? Well, that’s another story.
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