Facebook denies phone rumors, but possibility still exists
Is Facebook attempting to be the new Google? It might be, if the latest rumors are to believed. Mobile developers at Facebook are said to be working on a secret project, and that project may be a Facebook phone—despite the company’s denial.
Two well-known developers at Facebook, Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos, are said to be holed up working on a project that few people have knowledge of, including other Facebook staff. Hewitt is known for his work on Firefox and a web-based "OS" known as Parakey before working for Facebook. There he worked on a mobile version of the website for the iPhone, as well as creating the native iOS client.
Papkipos is described as a "rock star" developer, and was a lead on the Chrome OS project at Google—another OS built around web-based applications. Papakipos unexpectedly left Google in June to work for Facebook.
Certainly these two developers have the chops to create some type of mobile OS built around Facebook and a user’s contact information. But another recent Facebook hire may also be a factor in such a project as well. Former senior product manager for Android, Erick Tseng left Google for Facebook in May, saying via Twitter that he planned to "innovate at the intersect [sic] of mobile and social."
A source for Silicon Alley Insider claimed that the rumored phone would "for sure" be using a customized version of Android, with Facebook’s own design and integration layered on top. That might explain why Tseng—a high-level leader on the Android team—defected to Facebook just as the mobile OS is beginning to gain serious traction with consumers.
That intersection Tseng mentioned doesn’t necessarily have to be a Facebook-branded smartphone, however. The team could merely be building advanced apps that have tighter integration with current mobile OSs. In fact, Facebook spokesperson Jaime Schopflin offered that exact explanation behind the rumor Sunday when it denied working on its own phone. "Our approach has always been to make phones and apps more social," she told Mashable. "Our view is that almost all experiences would be better if they were social, so integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems is a good way to enable this."
But a Facebook phone is not in the works, Schopflin said. "[B]uilding phones is just not what we do."
On the other hand, as TechCrunch points out, building its own OS would give Facebook the opportunity to deeply integrate Facebook contact lists, photos, and other features, much like Apple ties MobileMe and iTunes with iOS and Google ties its various services with Android.
We’re not convinced that Facebook’s statements preclude some type of mobile device, like a smartphone, from being made. The most likely scenario is that Facebook would have HTC or some other manufacturer build the hardware to run a modified version of Android as described by SIA’s source. Going that route would give Facebook the shortest time to market.
Facebook’s brand does have a very high visibility right now, especially with younger consumers. And with smartphones as popular as they have ever been, now would be as good a time as any for Facebook to make a move in this space.