Mobile

Google kills Android contact feature in Facebook data spat

NOTE: GrowthBeat -- VentureBeat's provocative new marketing-tech event -- is a week away! We've gathered the best and brightest to explore the data, apps, and science of successful marketing. Get the full scoop here, and grab your tickets while they last.

It looks like Google is willing to eliminate product features in order to make a point about data portability.

Yes, this is the latest chapter in the baffling spat between Google and Facebook over user contact data. As outlined by TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid, Google’s latest update to its Nexus S phone eliminates the ability for users to see their Facebook contacts in their Android address book. What’s the rationale? Here’s what a Google spokesperson said:

We believe it is very important that users are able to control their data. So in the over-the-air update for Nexus S, we have a small change to how Facebook contacts appear on the device. For Nexus S users who downloaded the Facebook app from Android Market, Facebook contacts will no longer appear to be integrated with the Android Contacts app. Since Facebook contacts cannot be exported from the device, the appearance of integration created a false sense of data portability.

Facebook contact data will continue to appear within the Facebook app. Like all developers on Android, Facebook is free to use the Android contacts API to truly integrate contacts on the device, which would allow users to have more control over their data. We are removing the special-case handling of Facebook contacts on Nexus S and future lead devices. We continue to believe that reciprocity (the expectation that if information can be imported into a service it should be able to be exported) is an important step toward creating a world of true data liberation — and encourage other websites and app developers to allow users to export their contacts as well.

Maybe I’m being too cynical here, but it’s hard to imagine that Google made this change in response to users complaining, “Oh darn, I can’t export my Facebook contacts from my phone. If that’s the case, purge them from my address book completely!” Instead, this looks like another way for Google to pressure Facebook into sharing more of its contact data, or at least to score some publicity points around the issue of data portability.

That feeling is exacerbated by the fact that this only applies to the Nexus S right now (though Google says it could also include “future lead devices” for the Android operating system). That means the company can make its grand statement about data portability without affecting a large number of users.

Google isn’t even making this change on the current device’s predecessor, the Nexus One, because “the Facebook app was preloaded on Nexus One,” which “created an expectation for users of how the device would function.” On the other hand, allowing this feature and then taking it away isn’t a case of false expectations at all, right?

So why make the change now? Well, the timing may be coincidental, but there have been reports that Google will finally launch its big social networking product this spring.