Facebook held an event yesterday at its headquarters in Silicon Valley, and of course the old "Facebook phone" unicorn reared up again. It didn't launch its own hardware in the end, but guess what? A Facebook Phone is still a stupid idea.
A "Facebook Phone" would be like the failed Disney Phone of the previous decade: an attempt to platformise a single application, and it would fail. Yes, people use and love Facebook. But Facebook doesn't have a complete mobile ecosystem to drop onto a phone, and Facebook has more to gain by being on every phone than by being ghettoised onto its own-branded device.
(For the duration of this argument we're going to ignore the HTC ChaCha/Status "Facebook Phone," which had so many other problems that it neither proved nor disproved the value of a Facebook-centric smartphone.)
"But Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all done their own devices!" you cry.
None of them are proper examples for Facebook. Amazon is a store, and the optimised Amazon devices increase purchase intensity, making more money for Amazon. Microsoft appears to have created the Surface out of desperation, to prove that Windows RT is viable; in that case, the Surface is an expression of weakness, not one of strength. Google's Nexus phones are developer devices so Android coders can write to a clean common platform.
Facebook's strength is in its huge audience; it's a social (lots of people) network (lots of people). In that way, its best mobile parallel is Google's Android, whose business model is based on advertising and on collecting people's behavioural information. Google, like Facebook, understands the value of working with a lot of partners to achieve maximum eyeballs. There is more than one Android phone.
What Facebook Needs
Not to dismiss Graph Search entirely, but what Facebook needed to announced yesterday was much better apps for every phone and tablet.
Facebook says it wants to be a big mobile player, but its apps can be a mess: they're often sluggish and unstable, and their level of integration varies from phone to phone. Facebook's iOS and Android apps have gotten a lot better since the company acknowledged that native-coded apps still work better than HTML5. Its Windows Phone app is still quite slow. And because of a feud between Facebook and Google over APIs, you can't count on great Facebook integration in every Android phone (although HTC and Samsung do a good job fitting it into theirs.)
Yes, this is a much harder row to hoe than just doing a perfect experience for one device. But it's Facebook's row, and it can bear fruit. The mobile world is highly fragmented, and that isn't going away any time soon. If BlackBerry 10 succeeds - and it's starting to look like it has a decent chance - we'll have at least four smartphone platforms competing through 2013, as well as successful pseudo-smartphones like Nokia's multimillion-selling Asha line.
Services tied to one platform have an inherent bias towards that platform. Google+ will probably always be best on Android, and RIM will drive its users towards BBM. Platform providers are fighting each other to win, which means that they'll do their best to use social network effects to force users to drag their friends over onto a particular mobile platform. But for those of us in the real world, that's neither realistic nor desirable. Competition begets improvement and change. Communications tools are best when they're truly interoperable. Friends shouldn't be forced to use the same mobile.
As a neutral party in this gruesome platform war, Facebook can bring everyone together, just not with its own phone. Its new Graph Search feature may well be a good start, but the best way to boost the Facebook brand is to focus on the development of slick, platform-appropriate apps.