Earlier this weekend, Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch published a story called "Facebook Is Secretly Building a Phone." The story posits that Facebook is deep in development on a brand-new smartphone platform, evidenced by the reports of one unnamed source and by the supposed activities of two high-level Facebook employees, Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos.
Hewitt comes from Firefox, and has spearheaded development of Facebook's iPhone and Android apps. Papakipos is a recent hire from Google, where he worked on Android and Chrome OS.
Arrington also speculates—it's unclear if this speculation is based on anything his unnamed source told him—that the phone will be very low-end (like, $50) and has "full integration" with Facebook, whatever that means. "You call your friend’s name, not some ancient seven digit code, for example," he says, somehow under the impression that people actually punch in numbers instead of scrolling through lists of names to call friends (does he have a rotary attachment for his iPhone?).
Facebook responded (to Mashable) with a somewhat cagey denial:
The story, which originated in Techcrunch, is not accurate. Facebook is not building a phone. Our approach has always been to make phones and apps more social. Current projects include include everything from an HTML5 version of the site to apps on major platforms to full Connect support with SDKs to deeper integrations with some manufacturers.
Our view is that almost all experiences would be better if they were social, so integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems is a good way to enable this. For an example, check out Connect for iPhone and the integration we have with contact syncing through our iPhone app. Another example is the INQ1 phone with Facebook integration (the first so-called 'Facebook Phone'). The people mentioned in the story are working on these projects.
The bottom line is that whenever we work on a deep integration, people want to call it a 'Facebook Phone' because that’s such an attractive soundbite, but building phones is just not what we do."
Sounds clear, but it's not—at least, not in the "strict denial" kind of way. Sure, Facebook isn't building a phone—the literal interpretation of that statement is that Facebook is actually constructing or manufacturing a phone, which obviously they are not (Facebook isn't a hardware company and doesn't own any manufacturing plants). The rest of the statement is mostly faffing around about Facebook's mission statement, which is easy (and fun!) to skip, but which actually holds some clues as to what Facebook's really up to.
TechCrunch, milking the story as hard as they can, is claiming that this response means that their original rumor really is true, that Facebook really is working on a smartphone OS. I, on the other hand, am dubious. Arrington's information is so vague as to be pretty much meaningless—he's not sure if it's a new smartphone OS, a version of an existing smartphone OS (like Android), or a glorified dumbphone (like the Microsoft Kin). He doesn't know when it'll hit the market (in the original story, he says this holiday season is a possibility, and in another, he says it might not hit for "a year or more"). He doesn't, in short, really know anything about this thing, so it's time to step back and look rationally at what this rumor might mean.
A Facebook mobile OS, built from the ground up, is incredibly unlikely. The smartphone market is crowded and getting more crowded, and chock-full of heavyweights. Apple is successful. Google is successful. BlackBerry is successful. Microsoft might be successful (but in any case is going to be a hefty market presence). Palm/HP is...around, sort of. All of these companies have years, sometimes decades, of mobile OS experience. Facebook has zilch—a couple of dudes from Firefox and Google do not a mobile interface team make.
Making an OS is about as hard as interface work gets—you've got to be good at a few dozen different things, almost none of which Facebook has ever tried. Yes, you could have said the same about Google in 2007, but Google had the benefit of a massively successful group of Web apps (Chrome, Gmail, Docs, Search, Maps, etc). Facebook is simply not diverse enough to take on such a project.
I think that a Facebook-branded Android phone is much more likely, especially given both the hiring of these developers and the subtext of the reply from Facebook. Facebook was careful to say that their efforts are focused on "integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems." Existing would be the key word there. Know what's a thing that exists? Android. Android totally exists.
Of all the major OSes, Android is the only one that can reasonably be modified, and, surprise surprise, Facebook hired away a Google veteran who also worked on Android. Besides, there's precedence for social-networking-heavy Android phones—the Motorola Cliq was a reasonable success on T-Mobile with that exact philosophy. But calling that sort of project the "Facebook Phone" is as misleading as calling the Nexus One the "Googlephone." The Nexus One was Google-branded and sold from Google's site, but in every other way it was a completely normal Android phone.
So, Facebook-branded, social-networking-focused Android phone? Not unlikely! Not even that bad an idea! Facebook mobile OS from scratch? Very bad idea. Very unlikely idea. The "Facebook Phone"? Not gonna happen. An Android phone with heavy Facebook integration? Could happen.