Does Facebook need its own smartphone platform? That question is being debated across the web following a TechCrunch article claiming the social networking giant is secretly developing its own handset platform. Bloomberg published a subsequent article saying that Facebook is actually working with handset maker INQ on the development of two smartphones running the Android operating system, but customised to work really well with Facebook.
The Bloomberg story makes much more sense to me and here’s why: As long as Android continues to be competitive with Apple’s iOS and remains an open platform that can be modified by handset makers, why would Facebook go to the considerable trouble of developing and promoting its own handset software platform? Symbian, which is still the leading smartphone operating system worldwide, can also be customised, if not quite as easily as Android.
Moreover, everybody, including Facebook, recognises that there are too many smartphone platforms on the market right now, creating fragmentation and compatibility headaches for apps developers, content providers and mobile operators alike. Why add another one?
TechCrunch says that “Facebook wants to integrate deeply into the contacts list and other core functions of the phone. It can only do that if it controls the operating system.” But does Facebook really need to integrate into a phone’s native contacts list? For some people, Facebook is actually making the conventional contacts list obsolete. Don’t Facebook fans just open the Facebook app on their smartphones and contact their friends through the social network, rather than sending text messages through the traditional phone book?
What about Amazon and Tesco?
TechCrunch also reported that Facebook has become “concerned about the increasing power of the iPhone and Android platforms.” But if Facebook should develop a smartphone platform to compete with platforms promoting Apple’s or Google’s communications services, by the same reasoning, shouldn’t Amazon and Tesco also have their own operating systems to ensure that their e-commerce stores are on an equal footing with those of Google and Apple? Where would it all end? Would everyone with a major web service need their own handset platform?
Although Apple’s recent move to add social networking features to iTunes will justifiably have sounded alarm bells in Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters, there is no sign that its near neighbour intends to try and marginalise Facebook on the iOS platform. Indeed, not even Apple can risk alienating its customers by making it difficult to access Facebook. Ranking 14th in the top free apps listed on the U.K. version of Apple’s App Store, Facebook’s iPhone app is easy enough to find and download here in London. I’m sure that is true elsewhere.
So, Facebook really doesn’t need its own handset operating system. Instead, the world’s largest social network should focus its mobile development resources on a four-pronged strategy. Firstly and most importantly, ensure that Facebook is easy to access and use on the hundreds of millions of feature phones being sold every year, either by browsers or via Java apps. Secondly, work with handset makers to customise Android and Symbian so that they offer a compelling Facebook experience. Thirdly, consider integrating a VOIP service into Facebook, so its customers can make voice calls and video calls, as well as exchange messages and photos, within Facebook. Finally, Facebook should provide its whole-hearted backing to HTML5, which is designed to make it easier for developers to create compelling web apps that will run in a browser and therefore across different platforms.
Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, seems to see HTML5 as strategically important. In a clear-the-air interview with TechCrunch this week, in which he denied that Facebook is working on its own handset operating system, Zuckerberg said: “If something like HTML5 becomes a big standard then that would be hugely valuable for us. So we’ll help push that. I imagine that over the long term that will be the solution.”
Facebook should only consider launching its own handset platform if Apple begins to compete head-on with Facebook by launching a fully-fledged social networking service or Google forces Android-licensees to give priority to Google’s social networking services. Otherwise, a Facebook operating system would unnecessarily add yet more complexity to the overly-fragmented smartphone market.