There’s a pretty astute analysis over at Guardian technology regarding the reasoning behind attempts by Google to build a ‘Google phone’ and the incentives for Facebook to attempt to do the same (which are based on some journalistic speculation rather than any official announcements from the company itself – though the speculations come from a reputable and reliable source; Wall Street Journal’s All Things D blog).

The bottom line is that both Facebook and Google essentially rely on income from advertising to support their business models and that successfully delivering an own-brand smart-phone would allow for greater control over such activities. Yes, Android is thus far enjoying massive success in giving Google a strong foothold in the smartphone market – but the same could not really be said of their previous attempts to team up with handset manufacturers to deliver a Google phone (from the G1, G2, to the Nexus One, and now more recent Samsung models).

Anyway, Google is clearly trying and that is no secret. Officially, Facebook isn’t – though it has been rumoured in the past, and probably will be again in the future. Now, in terms of the likelihood of this speculation ever turning to reality, I should be upfront and let you know that I simply have no new info to add (just in case you thought I was Zuckerberg’s secret confiante and had a breaking-news bombshell to announce).

I have no idea if Facebook will try to launch their own smart-phone – and if they did, it would probably for all the reasons discussed in the Guardian article linked above. The reason I’m even here (in the digital debate so to speak) is simply to ponder the question from a consumer point of view: why would anyone buy a Facebook smartphone?

After all, Facebook’s brand presence is unlikely to get it much traction in the market. People are not used to paying for something with Facebook written on it and, moreover, Facebook’s brand image is so massively tied up in social networking that to see a single other ‘Facebook’ product out there would be downright confusing for many consumers.

So what’s the strategy going to be? Obviously Facebook would have to team up with a currently established smartphone manufacturer (most of whom would welcome the deal) in order to design and build the device although I would be curious if the terms of co-operating with Google on the same task prohibit such a partnership with Facebook.

In any case, who would be an attractive partner for Facebook (i.e. who could sell enough devices to make it a success)? Apple? They tend not to like compromising their brand image at the core level (though they do have partnerships with various lower-level start-ups and companies). Is HTC or Samsung likely to be attractive if they’re also working with Google? Probably not.

Motorola, RIM, Nokia (and increasingly also HTC) are all slightly worryingly poised in terms of their own business positions that a partnership as huge as this would represent somewhat of a risk for Facebook when those companies are all undergoing something of a change in direction and re-design of their smartphone strategy in order to try and get back on track after previous initial success (apart from Nokia who are now aiming for their first smartphone hit with the their Windows phones).

OK, so it’s hard therefore to say that a Facebook phone is likely to be attractive to consumers because of some superior and revolutionary handset, which means that the only real unique selling point for consumers could be something to do with Facebook functionality on the phone. But what could this actually mean?

  • A better user experience with a superior Facebook app? What would stop others from copying this (the technology in these devices is pretty similar after all)? Even more pertinent – how could this app actually improve user experience? Surely Facebook mobile is currently as optimised as it could be (I doubt they’ve deliberately kept better features ‘on-the-shelf’ to save as some kind of joker for later).
  • Related to the above – the All Things D post gives the very good point that it might be attractive for users to ‘escape the confines of the app’ – since a Facebook phone wouldn’t need an app to access Facebook functionality – and allow integration of normally app-native info like events into a phone’s calendar function. This does indeed sound good assuming people use Facebook functions like events in the same way as they would a ‘normal’ smartphone calendar – which I don’t think they always do. In other words, this would certainly be a unique feature (as it’s unlikely that Facebook would allow optional integration with other smartphone’s native calendar apps) – but it might not be strong enough to tempt consumers into buying the phone. In other words, escaping the app is only significant if the user experience is noticeably improved, and while there is some scope for this, it really depends more on how people are currently using Facebook and if more of this can be done on a smartphone than is the case right now.
  • New functions which are only available on the Facebook phone? Again, unless this was built upon a unique technological basis, it would be simply ridiculous to restrict it to only a small group of Facebook phone users (after all, Facebook mainly works because people can interact on an equal level). Even if some new technological innovation could offer a uniquely superior Facebook mobile user experience, how long would this edge last? How good does it have to be in order to become a significant market factor (for both Facebook, and consumers)?
  • Some other Facebook-unrelated USP, with Facebook coming as part of the deal, but not being the major selling point. So imagine for example a much cheaper smartphone option (price as USP) which also doubles up as Facebook phone. This would probably work for consumers – but only for as long as the USP held up. In other words Facebook’s success would be at the mercy of factors over which it has no control.

Anyway, I’ll end this speculative ramble here with the only conclusion which seems solid to me right now (and probably also to you if you’ve read all of this flimsy conjecture) – I can’t think of a single really sound reason why a Facebook phone would gain significant traction in the already congested smartphone market. The original blog post at All things D does come up with a few good ideas, but I’m personally not convinced that this alone would be enough to achieve the kind of success that would make such a venture worthwhile (i.e. that the gulf between an app and non-app experience of Facebook could be big enough in a way that favours the latter).

But that is only the case in my opinion – and right now – if Facebook succeeds in furthering some of its key partnerships (like the Skype integration for instance), which also works to change the way people use the network, then the Facebook phone will surely become increasingly logical. After all, it’s not to say that the idea doesn’t make sense for Facebook from their own point of view (I fully agree with the Guardian tech analysis linked above – it makes perfect sense for Facebook to think about something like this) but just that it simply doesn’t seem to be that viable from a business perspective, for now at least. We’ll see how things develop – I doubt this’ll be the last we hear on the issue…