MIT Technology Review

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Facebook Phone Is in Your Pocket

As more "Facebook phone" rumors surface, a reality check.

It’s a rumor that surfaces again and again: reports come today that Facebook and HTC are working together on a “Facebook phone.” Digitimes even says we’ll see the phone in Q3 this year. Facebook has repeatedly said it doesn’t intend to build a dedicated handset, so I’m going to diagnose this rumor as overblown, for now.

But that’s not to say that Facebook isn’t making interesting moves to strengthen its pride of place on the smartphone you already own, or will own. A “Facebook phone” would be a niche product at best. But if Facebook’s software and services can colonize various aspects of your iPhone, Droid, or Windows Phone... well, that’s well beyond a niche.

And that’s what Facebook has been doing. It began last week, with the most recent Android update. As DigitalTrends and other sites noted, Facebook had done something very sneaky. Its latest iteration of the Android app comes with two other apps, snuck in amidst your home screen. One app is called “Camera,” and is situated right next to the more typical Android camera app. And another is called “Messenger”--likewise, with the exact same name as the more typical Android messaging app. Users everywhere did double takes--until they realized a tiny “f” icon in the corner of each app. “You sly dog,” wrote DigitalTrends (which said the camera app was no good, anyway). Selectively installing the Facebook camera and messenger apps is not possible, it appears; it's all or nothing, if you want a Facebook app on your Droid to begin with.

The camera app in particular might betoken Facebook’s future aims for its recently acquired Instagram--a $1 billion move largely interpreted as a play for a firmer grasp on mobile. Likewise, the messenger app is likely to contain some of the DNA of Facebook’s other, lower-key, recent purchase: group messaging service Beluga.

This week also brings news of Facebook’s designs on the Windows Phone. Yesterday, the company posted its plans for its next version of the Windows Phone app. Given what I’ve termed Facebook and Microsoft’s tech bromance, it’s not surprising to learn that Facebook’s integration with the Windows Phone OS will be deeper even than that which obtains in iOS and Android. Among the Windows Phone/Facebook mashups the app will include: “Full Facebook threaded messaging including group messaging, all in a beautiful Metro style design.”

Those weird dedicated Facebook buttons notwithstanding, I don’t see Facebook becoming much in the way of a hardware company anytime soon. Why bother building a phone from the ground up, or even co-branding one, when you can infiltrate it through its apps? The truth of the matter is that the “Facebook phone” is already in your pocket. Maybe your next app update will make that clear enough.