A flurry of rumours circulated today about HTC launching Facebook-branded phones. Considering the source is a British financial rag handed out for free at train stations with no proven record of tech-exclusives, we cry foul.
Why this rumour doesn’t make sense
• CityAM didn’t quote any sources, instead relying on old favourites “City A.M. has learned” and “it is understood…”
• As aforementioned CityAM is hardly known for breaking tech news. Not to discredit a publication for never having made a scoop, it’s unlikely that a free financial paper—in England, no less—that’s handed out for free at train stations has the necessary contacts to dig up a story of this size.
• They’ve changed it now, but CityAM originally described HTC as a Korean company (they’re Taiwanese).
• The article says the phone will “run on a tweaked version of Google’s Android operating system and will prominently display users’ Facebook messages and news feed on the home screen.” I don’t know about you, but my HTC Android already does that. Likewise, “other areas of integration expected include being able to call or email friends from information stored on their Facebook page.” Looking at my “contacts” list now, I can see plenty of my Facebook contacts’ email and phone numbers, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.
• The two engineers CityAM claims that are working on the project—Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos—have previously been fingered as working on Facebook-branded phones last September. It wasn’t much of a stretch to align them with some mystery HTC phones.
• It’s more likely that HTC is working on an updated version of Sense, its UI for Android, integrating Facebook—and perhaps even Twitter—deeper than we’ve seen in the past. Indeed, Facebook spokesperson Jaime Schopflin herself confirmed back in September that Hewitt and Papakipos are already working on projects integrated Facebook into existing OSes, such as iOS and the INQ Mobile OS.
• We know CEOs lie all the time, but for what it’s worth, Zuckerberg himself said at the Facebook platform event last fall that they would not be doing a Facebook phone.
Why make a Facebook phone at all?
As Jesse Eisenberg said in the event last year, Facebook is focused on getting access to as many different platforms as possible. And thus, they previewed tools for developers to make the process of getting users on Facebook (from mobile devices) easier. But why make a phone?
In one way, Facebook is a lot like Google. They’re web-based, so the more people that can access their properties, the better. To that end, Google made a phone of their own. But it doesn’t quite make as much sense as for Facebook to do it, because it’s basically already been done.
If you take a look at Moto Blur on Motorola’s Android phones, or Palm/HP’s webOS, or HTC’s Sense UI as mentioned earlier, you’ll see that many phone manufacturers have already been integrating tightly into Facebook. You can post status updates from just about anywhere on the phone. Facebook contacts are seamlessly merged with your phone’s contacts. Facebook messaging is just another choice in a dropdown menu that includes texts, IMs and emails when you’re talking to your friends. And all your friends have their Facebook photos viewable to the point where your phone just uses their profile picture as your contact photo automatically. It’s all, essentially, a Facebook phone.
So what can Facebook add that these third-party manufacturers cannot? Besides branding—which is very important, don’t get me wrong—Facebook can provide tight integration. Maybe a VoIP service where you video chat and voice call through Facebook’s own network, but that’s unlikely in the realm where so few wireless providers allow or advertise the use of VoIP freely on a phone they promote.
Other than these features, think about what you’d want to do on Facebook today that you can’t already do on your Android/Pre phone. It’s hard to come up with something, isn’t it? Which is a good reason why it’s unlikely Facebook will make a phone. Not to mention that even though Facebook is growing, they’re not huge yet, and don’t really have the manpower or expertise to devise an entire operating system for themselves. They’ve poached one of Google’s Android leaders to help them develop on mobile, but if they were dramatically hiring cellphone/mobile OS developers, we’d have heard about it.