Today at Mobile World Congress, Mark Zuckerberg revealed plans to have Facebook on every phone--with "dozens" of new models due this year. But with tight Facebook integration on most smartphones, what exactly does he mean?
Zuckerberg was speaking via video at the HTC launch event in Barcelona, as part of the launch of HTC's new Salsa and Chacha Android smartphones. Both phones have a dedicated Facebook physical button on the front of the chassis in addition to the four traditional Android controls. Think of them as having "Facebook" where Apple has its iPhone's "home" button. Both phones are pretty basic Android devices, with 600MHz processors, 5-megapixel rear cams, front-facing VGA cam and 480 by 320 pixel screens--the chief difference is the Salsa is a touchscreen unit and the Chacha has a sliding keyboard. Both are mid-range phones in terms of pricing.
But the key component is that Facebook button which activates semi-automatically, and, when pressed, will take you directly to the Facebook app. It even has a pulsing blue LED effect which occurs whenever you've done something on the phone that you could share via Facebook (think snap a photo or record a video). In terms of pushing Facebook to the front of the user experience, this is a clever way of getting you to remember Facebook above other functions--you may previously have thought of using Twitter and Twitpic to share a photo, but that involves a single extra press on app icon on the homescreen, and lacks the attractive blue glow.
We're slightly mystified about the concept, however. The phones seem to be mid-priced Android units, with just this one differentiating feature...and, as we've noted, the Facebook "integration" is pretty mild centering on the context-aware button, and some tweaks to the HTC Sense UI that add in extra Facebook friendliness. In all other respects the phone's are pretty standard, and HTC is careful not to call them "Facebookphones."
So why would you spend to buy these devices, when there are other comparable (and possibly more feature-rich) Android units out there that let you do almost exactly the same Facebook interactivity with just a dab at the icon rather than a special button? This surely will only appeal to a minority of extremely addicted Facebook users.
Or is this merely the start of the plan? Zuckerberg's words teach us that he plans to insert Facebook into every phone, and we can expect "dozens" of specialized Facebook phones this year with "much deeper" integration. Perhaps we can expect units with UIs that are entirely Facebook-centric, with contacts, photo galleries and so on all drawn from your social net profile? This kind of advanced implementation would let Facebook serve up far more ads to its users, and be a serious value proposition.
But do its users really want this? And can Facebook really persuade manufacturers to put Facebook front and center? After all, it's already an app on the Android platform, and the iPhone app is arguably better evolved--plus you can link your iPhone contacts to Facebook profiles, including sharing of profile pics. The Windows Phone 7 Facebook system even lets you see dynamic updating Facebook status data on the home screen in one of the app panels.
But all of these are just apps, among many others on the phones--and its this diversity that makes smartphones so attractive to consumers, including apps that are above and beyond the kind of experience you can get inside Facebook (including gaming and photo sharing, and news-finding via Twitter). Surely Zuckerberg can't think his app is more important than all the others? The rapid success of, say, photo-sharing app Instagram would tend to disprove that notion.
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