A lot of rumours have been flying around lately that Facebook may bring out a smartphone of its own, possibly made by HTC. The company has denied it, but that doesn't quell the industry buzz. And where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
It seems odd that, given the competitive smartphone market, Facebook would even consider releasing a smartphone, which is why some people I talk to dismiss the idea. But, I am hearing from multiple sources that if Facebook does enter this market, it would be with an HTML browser phone that, in essence, would introduce a fourth major mobile OS to the marketplace.
Today, most smartphones are based on a specific OS, whether it is iOS, Android, BlackBerry, or another. While a dedicated OS is important given the need for local apps, there is another way to approach this market, especially on a device that you know will be always connected to a 3G or 4G radio. I think that Facebook is smart enough to dodge the iOS and Android war and bringing out an HTML smartphone would be a potentially unique and disruptive idea.
With iOS and Android, there are very rich development tools for creating apps. Local apps make a lot of sense since they can be used on things like the iPod touch or tablets with no Internet connection. However, anyone who has used apps on connected devices knows that it is the wireless connection that allows most of these apps to really sing and dance. If Facebook's goal is strictly to bring out a mobile connection to Facebook and have its smartphone serve as a portable vehicle to deliver a whole host of social, commercial, and media related services, then HTML would work just fine on a connected device.
This would mean that the Web browser would be the OS, so to speak, and all of the apps would come through this HTML browser. Since it would always be connected, it could deliver some pretty rich applications and services if done right, the operative word being "right." Mobile Web browsers have come a long way in the last five years and are capable of delivering pretty good renditions of webpages and Web apps even on devices that have localized apps. However, if a browser is to serve mainly as the way to get apps as well as Web content, then this browser needs to be pretty smart in its own right.
With this move, Facebook would enter new territory. Besides lacking experience as a smartphone vendor, it would have to deal with the carriers-something that Palm has shown in the past is quite difficult to do adeptly. I would like to think that if the only way to gain access to apps is via the Web, then the Facebook phone would need an all-you-can eat data plan. A plus is that it doesn't need a special SDK for apps and, at least in theory, any HTML app should work fine in mobile mode.
Now I personally have no clue if Facebook is really doing a smartphone, even though many indications point to yes. I do feel, though, that if it jumped into the market with an Android device, it would just be another me-too phone.
On the other hand, taking an HTML approach with a smartphone that is really optimized for Facebook's social experience and using it to deliver more personalized content, apps, information and games through Facebook could be quite interesting. It would allow this phone to have broad access to Web content and apps. If done elegantly, it would also keep Facebook users in the eco-system longer, thus helping its cause of monetizing more apps and services tied directly to its mobile handset.
In a way, Apple already does this with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad as they are all tied directly to Apple's eco-system of apps and services. However, Apple lacks the integrated social connection that Facebook could have with its smartphone. Given the fact that Facebook already has close to a billion users, if it could get this smartphone priced cheaply, it could be quite disruptive by stealing potential buyers away from Apple, Google and Microsoft mobile phone vendors that especially covet new users in emerging markets.
Facebook continues to be quite coy and its denials could be true. Also, it would be a risky move, given the current glut of phones already on the market.
But if I were a betting man, I would wager that it has closely surveyed the market. At the very least, it has seriously considered this idea of creating an HTML-based smartphone that is tied to its social eco-system. It would not surprise me at all if later this year, it actually introduced something to capitalize on a growing global Facebook community. In the process, it would also enter a fourth mobile OS into the smartphone wars.
Tim Bajarin is one of the leading analysts working in the technology industry today. He is president of Creative Strategies (www.creativestrategies.com), a research company that produces strategy research reports for 50 to 60 companies annually-a roster that includes semiconductor and PC companies, as well as those in telecommunications, consumer electronics, and media. Customers have included AMD, Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, and Microsoft, among many others.
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