There have been a lot of rumors flying around these days that Facebook could be bringing out a smartphone of their own and that HTC is making it for them. Facebook has denied they would do a handset, but rumors and industry buzz around this continues to be strong and usually where there is smoke, there might be a fire.
It seems odd that given the competitive market conditions in smartphones that Facebook would even consider doing a smartphone, which is why some people I talk to dismiss the idea of Facebook even venturing into this crowded market. But I believe there is a scenario that could actually allow them to do something innovative and interesting even with the smart phone market competition at an all time high.
Today, most smartphones are based on a specific OS, whether it is iOS, Android, Blackberry, etc. And 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 3 or 4G radio. I think that Facebook is smart enough to not get drawn into the iOS and Android wars and if they do release a smartphone, I believe it will be strictly an HTML phone. I have started to hear some rumblings that this is the approach they will take if they enter the smartphone market and in many ways, this would be a smart and potentially disruptive idea.
With iOS and Android, there are very rich development tools for creating apps and with both of these operating systems; local apps make a lot of sense since these apps can be used on things like the iPod 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. But if the goal of Facebook is to strictly bring out a mobile connection to Facebook and have their smartphone serve as a portable vehicle for them to deliver a whole host of social, commercial, and media related services then HTML would work just fine on a smartphone that always has a connection.
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. And since it would be always connected, it could deliver some pretty rich applications and services if done right. This is a rather intriguing idea since the operative word here is doing it right. Mobile Web browsers have come a long way in the last five years and are capable of delivering pretty good renditions of Web pages and Web apps even on devices that have localized apps. But 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.
But with this move, Facebook would be really moving into new territory. Besides not having any history as a smart phone vendor, they would have to be dealing with the carriers, something that Palm has shown in the past is quite difficult to do right. And, I would like to think that if the only way to gain access to apps is via the Web, then the data deal I would want on a Facebook smartphone would probably need to be an all-you-can eat plan. A plus is that they don’t need a special SDK for apps and, at least in theory, any HTML app should work fine in mobile mode.
Now I have no clue personally if Facebook is really doing a smartphone even though there are a lot of things pointing to the fact that this may be happening. But I do feel that if they jumped into the smartphone market with an Android device it would just be another me-to smartphone.
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, and if done elegantly, keep Facebook users in the Facebook ecosystem longer and thus helping their cause of monetizing more apps and services tied directly to their mobile handset.
In a way, Apple already does this with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad in that they are all tied directly to Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services. However, Apple lacks the social connection that Facebook could have with their smartphone. And given the fact that Facebook already has close to a billion users, if they could get this smartphone priced cheap, their handset could be quite disruptive as it could take potential buyers away from Apple, Andrid and Windows mobile phone vendors who are especially coveting new users in emerging markets.
Facebook continues to be quite coy on whether they are doing a handset and their denials could be true. Also it would be a risky move given the current glut of cell phones and smartphones already on the market. But if I were a betting man, I would bet that they have surveyed the market for smartphones and, at the very least, have done some serious R&D around this idea of creating an HTML based smartphone that is tied to the Facebook ecosystem and their social community. And it would not surprise me at all if later this year they actually introduce something like this to capitalize on a growing Facebook community around the world that just might be interested in a Facebook smartphone.