Facebook may be an app on your Android phone, but they have much bigger plans than that.
Discussions and rumors were going around the blogosphere these past few days that Facebook was developing their own smartphone. Some versions of the rumor said it would be a customized Android OS-based handset. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited Michael Arrington of TechCrunch over to their headquarters to clarify the rumor and discuss what their mobile plans are. But even Zuckerberg admits that the issue was more one of framing than facts. Was a phone going to be "Facebook branded" or merely Facebook optimized?
I'm sure it won't surprise anyone who has read a Mark Zuckerberg interview or heard one of his speeches that he used the phrase "make it social" about 1600 times. Or maybe it only seemed like that many, and I wasn't even in the room at the time.
Zuckerberg explained that rather than have to log into every app you visit, in his view of the mobile world, logging in once should enable all the social connecting on every socially-connected site you visit. He admits they are investing more in iPhone than Android, but admits Android's share is growing so that's where they are putting their efforts:
Mark Zuckerberg: ...On phones we can actually do something better. We can do a single sign-on if we do a good integration with a phone, rather than just doing something where you go to an app and it's automatically social or having to sign into each app individually. Those are the two options on the web. Why not for mobile? Just make it so that you log into your phone once, and then everything that you do on your phone is social.
...It's different on mobile than it would be on the web simply because it is not really possible. I guess maybe Google or Microsoft could have you log into the browser, but we can't because we don't build a browser - but, that is the basic strategy.
And then, we invest differently in different platforms depending on how big they are, and how many users are there. So, iPhone is the one we're investing in the most now, and Android increasingly... And maybe we'll build specific apps for iPhone and Android. And then, for something that is as important as iPhone or Android, we'll also build integration into the operating system. So for iPhone, we built in contact syncing, and for Android we integrated and did contact syncing pretty seamlessly. The question is - what could we do if we also started hacking at a deeper level, and that is a lot of the stuff that we're thinking about.
He mentions an INQ phone. That's another discussion that's just come up: Facebook is working with manufacturer INQ on not one but two smartphones, both Android-based. There will be a European release in the first half of 2011 and one for the US in the second half. AT&T is in discussion with Facebook in serving as the US carrier. Facebook itself wouldn't comment on the Bloomberg report of the two phones.
And then the question is: different people come to us with different ideas all the time, and we mentioned the example of the INQ phone in the past, and I think you appropriately said that it isn't some massive big thing, but it is cool and actually a lot of people bought it. But, people might want to take different cuts of different operating systems, or build different feature phones and integrate Facebook in different ways. The mobile market is just so fragmented that there is a lot of experimentation that can happen now too, so we're figuring out exactly what the optimum level of the stack is to be at. The reality is it will probably be different things to different phones. For some devices that we're not going to do a lot of specific work for, it will be HTML5.
Why does Facebook like Android so much, other than being a growing platform? Because Facebook can have it their way:
For platforms that are really important, but are hard to penetrate, like iPhone, we'll just do as much as we can. For Android, we can customize it a bit more. Other folks are going to want to work with us on specific things. But, our goal is not to build a phone that competes with the iPhone or anything like that.
And this is the thing that was potentially really damaging about having that meme our there is: if all of the people that are our partners, who are the main people that we're trying to work with to make everything social, think that we're trying to compete with them, that makes them not want to work with us.
So, it is really important for us that people understand what the strategy is and that the real approach is to make everything social, not to build a vertical approach.
Zuckerberg denies they are designing their own from-the-ground-up operating system for mobile phones. Certainly the Android approach takes the manufacturing and OS design issues to the experts rather than having Facebook reinvent what's already working:
There are people that manufacture phones who come and talk to us. And are like, OK, we have our own OS where we're working with Android and we want to see if we can build a deep integration with Facebook on this. Interestingly a lot of this stuff, we don't even do the engineering work.
Facebook is concerned about not directly competing with a lot of companies. Here's how Zuckerberg sees their relationship with the Android world:
Michael Arrington: Is another way of saying that the goal will never be to go head-on against the iPhone and Android and their businesses, at least, the strategy as you currently see it?
Mark Zuckerberg: Yeah, I mean I think we're trying to do something pretty different. I think those are both, iPhone is clearly a vertical strategy, Android is a bit more horizontal although they're focusing on specific things now too. I mean like the Droid is vertical, Android I think is horizontal. Ours is definitely more of a horizontal platform. Our goal is to have Facebook be everywhere and everything be social rather than a specific device.
So, there is going to be a Facebook-friendly device out next year, but there will be Facebook for many other devices as well. And that's staying horizontal.