Sandberg: It's more than a 'Facebook phone'

Facebook's COO gives an answer to the "Is Facebook building a phone?" question that is both more vague and more clear than the hullabaloo that resulted after the initial rumor broke.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

NEW YORK--Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg talked about a lot of things in an on-stage discussion Wednesday afternoon with Huffington Post co-founder and namesake Arianna Huffington: the roles of women in the business world, the controversial nature of "The Social Network," and the unsanctioned cinematic retelling of Facebook's early days that premieres on Friday.

"The movie's really fun, and it's very Hollywood," Sandberg said, a cheerier reaction to the film than Facebook executives reportedly made behind closed doors upon seeing an early cut of the David Fincher-directed film. She did, however, classify the acclaimed sex-and-treachery business thriller as "fiction," saying the real Facebook story was far less titillating. "In [founder Mark Zuckerberg's] real life, he was just sitting around with his friends in front of his computer, ordering pizza," Sandberg said. "Who wants to go see that for two hours?"

But one of the more interesting and less emphatic points that Sandberg made in Wednesday's talk, held at a New York Advertising Week conference sponsored by The Huffington Post, pertained to one of the biggest gossip items to surface about the company in its post-"Social Network" era: the alleged "Facebook phone."

Sandberg was asked by an audience member whether she could explain Facebook's forthcoming mobile plans--a thinly veiled reference to the flurry of reports earlier this month that the social network was working with carriers and hardware manufacturers to develop a branded mobile phone, much in the league of Google's failed Nexus One.

"Saying mobile is going to be getting big is silly. Mobile is big, and it's getting bigger," Sandberg explained. But her vague answer to the question was very different from Facebook's initial insistence that there was no such thing as a "Facebook phone," which spurred a public-relations mess and rival chest-thumping among bloggers insistent that their version of the story was the right one. CNET has confirmed that some such discussions took place, but it was unclear how far they had gone and where they would progress.

"We want to make Facebook available everywhere on every device. That's actually complicated in a world of so many cell phones, so many mobile operators...even the screen size is different, so you have to work with the different devices [to develop apps]," Sandberg said.

Her subtext is that, of course Facebook is negotiating with carriers and phone manufacturers--that's simply the reality of trying to be a ubiquitous force in the mobile world. Thinking of it this way, maybe there's more than one "Facebook phone." Maybe Facebook's presence on the phones in question differs from one handset to the next.

Down the road at the Web 2.0 Expo, another Advertising Week confab, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor took the stage in a Wednesday afternoon talk and was asked almost exactly the same question.

"We end up talking to a lot of mobile developers and mobile-phone makers because most of them integrate Facebook into the phone in some way," Taylor said. "I think some of those conversations get misconstrued into things that they're not."

Should you believe Sandberg and Taylor, this is yet another rumor powerhouse that, like the era covered in "The Social Network," might not be quite as scandalous as outsiders would have you think. And, once again, it's only Facebook's team that has the full story--and they aren't hitting the "share" button on it.