Facebook plans ‘social layer’ not a mobile phone OS

23 Sep 2010

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has confirmed the social networking giant isn’t planning to manufacture its own phones, instead it wants to build a social layer on top of everything. So is it working on an OS or social browser rather than a device?

Not really. Essentially it seems Facebook wants to integrate better with mobile phones which are developing at an alarmingly fast rate and will surely become the primary means of accessing the internet in the decade ahead.

For Facebook, with its 500 million users – one-third of the current internet population around the world – the next decade will be vital in terms of reaching the masses and of course monetising to feed a growing business.

So instead of actual devices or even operating systems, Facebook wants its dedicated applications for devices like the iPhone and Android to be an umbrella for countless other apps that Facebook users enjoy every day on their PC. It makes sense because it means the social network can continue to commandeer a slice of the revenue and advertising pie.

The ‘Facebook phone’

The whole rumour mill started when TechCrunch and others reported last weekend that according to informed sources, Facebook’s best engineers were working on a project known internally as the ‘Facebook phone.’

Facebook’s PR people moved fast to quash the rumours, denying any such plans. However, the cat was out of the bag sufficiently to result in the normally diminutive Zuckerberg to grant an interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington to discuss the Facebook Phone story.

According to a transcript of the interview, Zuckerberg said: “At the end of the day, when people say ‘building a phone’ they actually can mean very different things. Internally, the way we talk about our strategy, it’s like the opposite of that. Our whole strategy is not to build any specific device or integration or anything like that. Because we’re not trying to compete with Apple or the Droid or any other hardware manufacturer for that matter.

“Our strategy is very horizontal. We’re trying to build a social layer for everything. Basically, we’re trying to make it so that every app everywhere can be social whether it’s on the web, or mobile, or other devices.

“So inherently our whole approach has to be a breadth-first approach rather than a depth-first one. And we work on all of these different things at the same time, so I’m sure whatever leak you got was probably accurate for whatever the person said. But it was probably just one part of what we are doing.”

Zuckerberg said that the disruption seen by players in the market such as gaming outfit Zynga is only the tip of the mobile iceberg. The web he said is at only 1.5 billion people but very soon everyone on the planet could have a mobile phone.

“So our strategy is that we want to go wherever people are building apps so we can make all of those apps social if they want that.”

In other words, it seems Facebook wants to, for now, not only build the optimum set of Facebook mobile apps that interact nicely with other apps that people traditionally access through the browser on their PCs, it also wants people who build apps to interact with Facebook.

Shades of integration

He confirmed that the company invests the most in its iPhone app and increasingly in its Android app. If Windows Phone 7 takes off it will invest in that, too.

“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,” Zuckerberg said.

When challenged by Arrington on whether Facebook is building a ground-up operating system, Zuckerberg said that wasn’t the case. He said Apple designs and builds phones with Foxconn, Google makes operating systems.

“I mean, who knows, 10 years down the road, maybe we’ll build our own operating system or something, but who knows. That is more history than we’ve had so far with the company, so it is really hard to predict that far out. But for now, I think, everything is going to be shades of integration, rather than starting from the ground up and building a whole system,” Zuckerberg said in his TechCrunch interview.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years