Mobile

Why Facebook doesn’t need a Facebook Phone (but will try anyway)

With Facebook’s recent unveiling of a camera app for the iPhone, as well as a universal app store, it’s becoming clearer to me that even if the company is planning a phone of its own, it likely won’t be as big a deal as we think.

Instead, Facebook is continually proving that every phone is a Facebook phone — or at least, every phone that can run Facebook’s apps, which includes the iPhone, Android devices, and Windows Phones. That seems a far better strategy for the company too, as Facebook likely won’t have a chance in hell to pry consumers away from their existing smartphone platforms.

Nevertheless, the company knows that mobile is its greatest vulnerability, and for that reason, Facebook is probably going to try making a phone of its own, anyway.

A rising popularity in Facebook mobile consumption led the company to list mobile as a major risk before it went public. The average Facebook user spent 441 minutes (7 hours and 21 minutes) accessing the site on mobile, but it still doesn’t have a good way to monetize mobile users, the company revealed in its updated S-1 filing before its IPO earlier this month.

A Facebook phone likely won’t make a dent against all those users already using Facebook on their phones — and I don’t think that’s what the company wants anyway. Facebook wouldn’t spend $1 billion on Instagram, the wildly popular photo-sharing app on the iPhone and Android, if it aimed to actually kill other mobile platforms.

Now I won’t deny that a Facebook phone will happen at some point. We’ve been hearing about such a device for some time — most recently, it’s gone by the codename “Buffy” and is said to be developed by HTC — and it makes sense for Facebook to want a device entirely its own. But if anything, it’ll likely be a cheap mid-range Android phone that will appeal to teenagers and emerging markets, and not something that will compete with high-end smartphones. I’d imagine it would be similar to Inq’s Facebook-focused phones, though that company ended up cancelling one of its upcoming models.

Much as Amazon has offered a completely different spin on Android with the Kindle Fire, Facebook’s phone would be a cheap and easy way for its users to climb aboard mobile. (And the fact that it will lock those users into Facebook’s ecosystem is a nice plus.)

Business Insider’s Jay Yarow points out that with all of its recent apps, it looks like Facebook is putting together all of the core components of its phone right in front of us. The Facebook Camera app could easily be the primary camera app on the Facebook phone, and Facebook Messages could serve as main messaging app as well (just like iMessages, Facebook could use the app to handle both SMS and its own messages). Of course, those apps also serve as a perfect way to distract users from built-in apps on their smartphones.

Yarow also points to Facebook’s rumored interest in purchasing Opera, which would give it a powerful web browser of its own. While that’s one possibility, I view Facebook’s interest in Opera in another way: It’s the perfect way for Facebook to steal consumers away from mobile Safari on the iPhone and Android’s browsers (which includes the original Android browser and Chrome for Android).

If you own the browser, you own the web.

Opera could also serve as the perfect engine for a hyper-social web browser that’s intimately connected with all of Facebook’s services. It’s also a particularly interesting on the iPhone, as it’s the only third-party browser that isn’t forced to use Apple’s WebKit framework. Opera compresses web content on its servers before pushing it to your device, so it bypasses Apple’s restrictions on third-party browsers. That makes Opera on the iPhone faster than mobile Safari as well, and it could allow Facebook to build a truly interesting browser of its own with Opera’s tech.

Update: Well fancy that, now Nick Bilton at the New York Times is reporting more details on the potential Facebook phone. Facebook has hired more than half a dozen former Apple engineers who worked on software and hardware for the iPhone, as well someone who worked on the iPad, the paper reports.

Photo via Johan Larsson/Flickr


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