It’s a rumor that trickles out every so often. Like some 21st-century Paul Revere, an analyst or a blogger will ride across the internet brandishing a leak, shouting over and over, “the Facebook phone is coming! The Facebook phone is coming!”
Unlike their revolutionary Bostonian predecessors, though, the citizens of the internet don’t respond to this call by rising up, or retreating, or advancing, or panicking … they don’t take action of any kind, really. The news gets dutifully reposted, the internet murmurs for a bit, and then everything settles back down to normal before lunchtime. The morning’s “hot leak” becomes the afternoon’s “so what?” Sometimes, it doesn’t even get to that point; today, many outlets have stopped re-posting speculation about a Facebook-sourced mobile device all together.
That’s because, despite the buzz it carries by virtue of including the F-word (not that one), a Facebook phone just doesn’t make a lot of sense these days.
It wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, before the period I’ll pretentiously refer to as the modern smartphone era, things were more innocent. “Themed devices” were quite popular subjects of discussion. The buzz leading up to the introduction of the first iPhone was so enormous, and went on so long, that custom graphics like these were fairly common in 2007:
… and a year later, everyone was up in arms about the possibility of a “Google phone” even though we all thought it looked like this:
It goes without saying that our collective anticipation for both of the above devices turned out to be justified. The iPhone family went on not just to dominate the industry but to redefine it, and Google’s Android platform quickly evolved from a “me-too” competitor to a fully-featured leviathan. In just a few years’ time, the two OSes have sidelined, absorbed, or totally eliminated almost all of their competition.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a newer player to come along and shake up the scene. Indeed, we make the opposite point rather frequently here on Pocketnow, reminding everyone that Microsoft isn’t taking no for an answer with Windows Phone. But that’s a full smartphone platform, supported by its own ecosystem and backed up by a similarly designed desktop OS– and it still hasn’t managed to grow beyond 5% of the global smartphone market. There are extenuating circumstances accounting for some of Windows Phone’s problems, but the fact remains: breaking in as a new product is hard. Even if you’re talking about a device running on an existing platform, you need to offer something you can’t get anywhere else.
Facebook, even considering its awesome scale, is too limited a concept to justify a phone built just for it. Back in 2007, the buzz surrounding the first iPhone made sense: Apple was an admired computer company and its venture into the still-nascent smartphone market was hugely significant. In 2008, it made sense to get excited for a Google phone – search is a powerful tool, especially in mobile, and Google had proven it could not only do search better than anyone else, but it could provide other useful tools like Gmail and Maps.
Today, in 2012, it makes no sense for anyone to be excited about a Facebook phone– and almost no one is. That’s not because it’s an unimpressive company: Facebook does amazing things, not the least of which is revolutionizing the way we socialize. But though it would like to be a one-stop shop for all our social-media needs, it’s not. As a culture, we’ve demonstrated that we need alternate mediums like Twitter -which now pulls in twice the ad revenue Facebook does- and LinkedIn to fill a gap Facebook can’t. When Zuckerberg’s opus tries to be more, we don’t let it … or it sucks. Remember Facebook’s attempt to reinvent email?
So Facebook isn’t all-encompassing enough to deserve a special smartphone all to itself, but that doesn’t mean the idea lacks merit. The notion of tighter Facebook integration in a smartphone is actually quite appealing, and we’ve been seeing that on the software side for some time as Android, iOS, and Windows Phone cozy up to the social network’s handy plugins.
Bolder moves are rarer, but they’re there. Anyone remember the HTC ChaCha, a.k.a. the HTC Status?
Make fun of me all you want, but I think the Status had its merits. The context-sensitive button down there in the corner might’ve looked haphazardly tacked on, but it was smart: it glowed when it thought you might want to share something, like a photo, on the ‘book. Pressing it once jumped you right into a status-update window, no matter where in the OS you were. It even offered long-press functionality for a quick location check-in.
The Status/ChaCha ran Android, so you still had access to (most of) the Android app Marketplace, and its angled chassis and BlackBerry-esque form factor gave it a unique look and feel in the hand. Handicaps like its bad keyboard and landscape-formatted screen aside, it made a degree of sense. I liked it enough to write a complimentary editorial about it. Laugh all you want; it got me hired here.
But a button isn’t enough. No matter how good the ChaCha was or wasn’t, the problem isn’t with the phones; again, the issue is with Facebook wanting to be all things to all people. It can’t. People who are socially-inclined want to be able to go to a baseball game and share photos on Facebook, yes … but they also want to be able to check in to the stadium on Foursquare, complain about hot-dog prices on Twitter, and post doctored pictures of the field on Instagram. They don’t need a special Foursquare phone or a Twitter tablet or an Instagram camera to do all that; current smartphones are adaptable enough to fill the need. And current smartphones already feature “special buttons” for all those: they’re called app icons.
In many ways, the notion of a Facebook phone recalls the era of the dumbphone, or “feature phone” in more polite parlance. Cellphones weren’t easily upgradeable back then -OTA updates didn’t exist yet- so the feature set you bought was the one you were stuck with for the life of the phone. Back then, choosing a cellphone was as much a matter of software as hardware. And back then is when a Facebook phone (or perhaps a MySpace phone) might have had a shot at relevance. Not today. Today, if your phone doesn’t have the functionality you need, you download an app.
That’s the beauty of the modern mobile era, and it completely obliterates the need for a dedicated Facebook phone. Such a device would most likely bring no significant improvement to the existing mobile Facebook experience, with the possible exception of a dedicated button. While I’m all for fancy buttons, they’re just not enough to make out a compelling case for a Facebook phone. Particularly when our existing smartphones already do such a good job at keeping us plugged in.
Twitter-vs-Facebook stats source: Forbes