Facebook Should Absolutely Build a Mobile Phone

The meme of the weekend was a TechCrunch report that Facebook is working on its own phone. Facebook quickly distributed a detailed denial of any phone-building activity, trying to cut the story at the knees by stating it’s not building a phone, but it is working on adding support for Facebook Connect into mobile operating systems and building a broadly accessible HTML5 version of its site. But the idea clearly has staying power, and why not? It’s a good one. Facebook should start working outside its core competency very soon to do things like make phones.

Creating a better mobile experience would significantly help Facebook in its competitive fight against Google (s GOOG). Right now, Google might be inept at social, but it’s clearly trying to do better, and it will. Google’s best social assets are the Gmail platform and the rapidly adopted Android mobile OS. A Facebook phone, even one built on Android, would help erase some of the very real advantage Android gives Google through the on-phone address book and the ability to help shape other people’s mobile apps.

Facebook might be an emerging technology juggernaut, but it’s narrowly focused on building a social networking platform. Meanwhile, Google often releases products that extend its influence in unexpected, non-core and seemingly off-topic ways: Google Maps and Google Earth, Android, Chrome and Chrome OS, regional fiber deployments, even the Lunar X Prize for moon travel. While search advertising is still where Google’s big bucks come from, it’s these other projects that make the company pervasive and keep it innovative. When Google was six years old, as Facebook is now, it launched Gmail. The most experimental and non-core thing Facebook has done recently is to essentially rip off its former employees’ startup Quora with the launch of Facebook Questions.

That Facebook says it’s not “building” a phone doesn’t mean all that much. The Facebook phone story has a strong déjà vu factor, given that Google recently made its own phone to demonstrate the capabilities of Android. That project, the Nexus One, has already been aborted, with Google saying the example the phone had set has been absorbed by other handset makers. Google, of course, didn’t actually construct its own phone; it partnered with HTC. Similarly, Facebook could easily customize and brand a phone without “building” it. It would, of course, try to improve on some of the pitfalls of the Nexus One, like direct sales, customer service and competing against carrier and handset partners.

Obviously, the idea of embedding Facebook more deeply into phones makes tons of sense. It’s already happening. I get a thrill every time I get a call on my Droid Incredible from a Facebook friend I’ve never talked on the phone with, and see his or her name and picture pop up on my screen when the call comes in, thanks to Facebook-Android integration. Facebook already has 150 million active mobile users for a range of apps, partnerships and mobile web offerings (and they are twice as active as non-mobile users), but the company’s mobile offerings almost always lag far behind the development of its main website and are long overdue for significant refreshes.

A Facebook-branded phone could have:

  • A dynamically updated, global, mobile address book that has everyone’s number I rightfully have access to, but prioritizes those I actually talk to often. Facebook already has filtering capability like this powering its news feed. The concept of deleting numbers (unless they’re for an ex you really shouldn’t call when drunk) or updating contact info should disappear.
  • A display of whether contacts are available based on information from interpreting their IM status, their location, whether or not they’re on a call, scheduled meetings, and other integrated calendar and real-time factors.
  • Ways for other mobile developers to easily hook into Facebook to make them socially relevant and share activity with Facebook. This could include activity stream information as well as integrated Facebook Credits payments, Facebook Places check-ins and other actionable information. It would also be a great way for Facebook to improve and extend its advertising.

That’s just my quick stab at brainstorming features; I’m sure other people could dream up many more imaginative and useful concepts. Maybe the idea of building a social phone is too obvious — indeed, it’s already been done by INQ with much success. Many of these features could be implemented with improved Facebook integration into other people’s mobile operating systems. Facebook should probably think bigger and more radical.

For more discussion about the future of mobile, you should check out GigaOM’s third annual Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Sept. 30.

Image by Sean Percival.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

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