Facebook’s new smartphone? Just never say never

28 May 2012

Claims that social networking giant Facebook is working on its own smartphone refuse to die. And with US$16bn of a war chest following its lukewarm IPO, rumours have once again flared up that not only is Facebook building a mobile OS, it is working on the hardware, too, for next-generation smartphone devices.

The thing about the technology industry is you can discount nothing in its entirety and for certain the mobile screen is infinitely more valuable in the eyes of Silicon Valley today than the good old desktop screen.

Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in recent months followed by its launch last week of a mobile phone app called Camera has tongues wagging about Facebook building its own smartphone step by step and app by app. Before ‘Camera’, Facebook released a mobile app for managing your various Facebook Pages, not to mention Facebook Messages.

Not only that but Facebook is positioning itself to be an uber-apps store.

Facebook has tried before to get into the smartphone game through alliances with both Vodafone and HTC and is understood to be working on a device code-named ‘Buffy’ with HTC. It is also understood to have abandoned plans for an operating system two years ago.

But it looks like it’s going to try again. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton reports that a hardware team has been assembled to figure out the manufacture of a smartphone device. He asserts that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is determined to understand the rudimentary details of smartphone design, from the chipsets to the antennae.

This suggests to me that Facebook is undergoing a similar education to Google – that smartphones are amazingly complex and hard to get right and it’s better to do it right from the start than merely licensing an OS. Hence Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility – it needs to get to grips with the science of smartphones. Google may not stray from its path of keeping Android as an open source OS for other manufacturers, but to succeed in the smartphone business into the future means being at the heart of radio science.

This is a lesson Microsoft may be about to learn the hard way and judging by the way Nokia is going don’t be too surprised if Microsoft comes to the rescue.

I’m thinking M&A activity – Facebook could potentially buy struggling Canadian phone maker Research in Motion or, unless its fortunes improve, HTC, too.

The Apple seed

All of this points in the direction of the success of Apple, which has time and time again proven it is better to own both the software and the hardware and be in control of its own destiny.

It is only five years ago that Apple shocked the tech world with the launch of the iPhone. Before that there had been rumours it might get back into phones but experiences like the Newton and a short-lived collaboration with Motorola to launch a music phone called the ROKR in 2005.

Disillusioned with the experience of the ROKR, Apple’s then CEO Steve Jobs marshalled his forces in-house to focus in depth on smartphone creation – including its science – and employed the design genius of Jonathan Ive to focus on a product people would want to use. In fact, contrary to mobile industry instincts at the time, they came up with a device that people would love to use.

In many ways the iPhone saved and reinvigorated the smartphone. And every manufacturer, from Samsung to HTC and software creator from Microsoft to Google, should doff their hats and say thanks for that.

If Facebook is serious about making its own smartphone it will have to do so with the diligence and humility of Jobs and Ives after 2005. It means knuckling down and appreciating what’s missing in the market.

I think all OS players in the smartphone business today will eventually come to the realisation that they need to control the hardware aspect, too. Apple is religious about this. Google has learned this lesson. Microsoft is about to learn this lesson.

Zuckerberg is only 28 years of age and by figuring out how people wanted to communicate in the 21st century he has built up a company that has a US$16bn war chest to invest in building the expertise or acquiring the expertise of smartphone design; heck possibly even tablet design (‘fablet anyone’?).

We are only scratching the surface of what’s possible. Eight years ago most of us carried dumb phones and couldn’t have guessed what social networking was about.

I wonder what we’ll be saying in eight years’ time?

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