The potential success or calamity of Facebook phone

The notion of a Facebook phone has certainly lingered for a few years now -- the concept reached a point of half-hearted fruition in the HTC ChaCha and Salsa in 2011, but neither really embodied the true potential of a Facebook phone. They were much more of "throw and see what sticks" devices -- with the only tangible evidence of deeper Facebook integration being the Facebook button on the devices’ fronts.

Much has changed in nearly two years: Facebook’s Open Graph, the acquisition of Instagram and the introduction of Facebook Camera and Messenger applications, among others. Perhaps the most strident progression Mark Zuckerberg’s social network has made in the past two years is reaching 1 billion active users. And counting. That’s approximately one in seven people in the world, and an even larger proportion if accounting for the developed world alone.

It’s a number that CEO Zuckerberg wouldn’t have dared to dream in his Harvard dorm room almost 10 years ago, and a level of pervasiveness that I personally find astounding and perhaps even intimidating -- intimidating that one corporation could occupy so much global mindshare in an industry so inherently personal. You would think that a corporation with so much social leverage would be able to make some inroads in the smartphone industry.

Collecting User Data

The question: how deep can you integrate Facebook into the smartphone experience before it becomes downright intrusive, and is portrayed obviously as an overbearing corporate ploy. This is the dangerous balancing act that Facebook has to play, to integrate deeply enough to be an inescapable aspect of our smartphones and by extension our daily lives, without integrating so much as to reveal those intentions.

For Facebook, the benefits of a phone OS developed in-house are obvious. The social network is primarily an ad business and much like Google its money-making capabilities lie almost exclusively in understanding users. The more is understood about them, the more ads can be targeted at the right people. A simple mobile app that is the depth of Facebook’s current mobile strategy on most platforms provides extremely limited scope is terms of user data aggregation -- there are so many aspects of mobile usage that Facebook can’t tap into with a simple app.

If the social network built a phone to service its business motives, the device could integrate, say, Facebook places into the default mapping application and give clearer idea from where users search. The company could tap into the music and video players to ascertain the entertainment tastes of individuals. And of course Facebook could put forward a compelling case to replace SMS and calls with Facebook Messenger and free calling to other Facebook users --- augmenting subscriber reliance on the Facebook ecosystem and strengthening the ‘walled garden’.

Of course not all of these approaches may be feasible, and such invasive behavior will likely come under close scrutiny from privacy watchdogs, but the potential is certainly there. As society begins to get more comfortable with sharing more information online and as the power of ubiquity continues to grow for Facebook, now is as good a time as any for the social network to pounce with an aggressive mobile strategy.

Hamsters One and All

But how well could Zuckerberg and Company sell such a device? The HTC ChaCha and Salsa failed to really make a splash, or provide any indication that a Facebook Phone can be a hit device.

Many of us are hopelessly reliant on Facebook, and we tend to know that. We know that Facebook is among the most used apps on our phone and we check it impulsively. We scroll our News Feeds rain or shine, interesting or boring and we keep doing it even when we get nothing form the behavior. There’s a natural inclination to check the social network persistently, so would a phone built around a Facebook backbone be useful? Perhaps. Is this a selling point? Doubt it.

As much as we’ve allowed Facebook to become an ingrained aspect of our lives, we’re ashamed to admit it -- there’s a stigma attached to a Facebook reliance that we’d all love to, but wouldn’t ever shake. Facebook isn’t something people think of when buying a phone because we’re accustomed and satisfied with the accessibility of the social network on smartphones that we have now -- through an app. A Facebook phone is the answer to a question nobody has asked, which is where the real challenge lies.

To have Facebook on our smartphones left, right and center, as the very spinal core of our smartphones will inevitably increase its accessibility, efficiency and ultimately usability, but I’d vouch that there would be significant consumer trepidation about going down this route. We don’t want to get too intimate with something that is beginning to become dangerously addictive. A Facebook Phone, that is marketed as such would lack appeal for this reason alone. Facebook does not increase a phone’s marketability, we’ve learned that. Such a device would be a flop bar for one that is so exquisitely designed and offered at a bargain basement price.

But Facebook’s "Home on Android" project mightn’t be anything like this. It might not be a "Facebook Phone" in the same way that the Kindle Fire is Amazon’s tablet -- built entirely in-house with an exclusive and heavily-modified version of Android running on Amazon devices only. Such a strategy would be the anti-thesis of Facebook’s trajectory; after all, social networking is an industry which hinges entirely on pervasiveness, not exclusivity. On Thursday, Facebook will show us a modified version of Android with Facebook running through its vein in a most exquisite and beautiful manner. The company show it on a phone, of course, but not selling one. If big boy Zuckerberg unveils and intends to market a phone coupled with the Facebook-ified OS as a complete entity, then he has taken a wrong step.

Facebook has no interest in being in the hardware business, but should continue to have interest in being part of everyone else’s software -- ubiquity after all, is the key.

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