Would you buy a phone from Facebook?

A report, denied by the company, states Facebook is developing its own cell phone OS and physical phone. Who would buy a phone from a company that's never been responsible for a physical product?

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Standing behind me in line for my coffee this morning was a man wearing a full-length skirt.

I wonder whether that peculiar sense of the unusual I felt would be mirrored by those who encountered an alleged new Facebook phone.

TechCrunch reported that Facebook is in the the throes of building a Facebook-branded cell phone.

Facebook denied that there was such a project and commented: "The bottom line is that whenever we work on a deep integration, people want to call it a 'Facebook Phone' because that's such an attractive soundbite, but building phones is just not what we do."

Many within the tech world, however, immediately recognized the motivation behind such a project.

Google and Apple are forming their own, hopefully self-sufficient, ecosystems. Facebook, in order to expand its ability to have everyone in the world spill their personal beans consistently to everyone else, must be deeply embedded in the core of the phone's operating system, especially its contact lists.

If social is the future, then everything on the phone should be socially oriented. Which means that everything on the phone should be very Facebook-friendly.

Is he creating a socially sophisticated cell phone? CC Deney Terrio/Flickr

While the theory of a Facebook phone seems understandable, there is only one small question: who would buy it? Phones are bought by real people who find something emotionally enticing about a particular product. Google, on launching its Nexus One, seemed to believe it could just put its product online for hordes of real humans to crave its indulgence. They didn't.

If Facebook chose to release a phone, it would be a huge test for its brand. The company would have to work hard not merely on making an OS that combines entertainment with function but also a phone that people would want to be seen with.

In contrast to Google, Facebook has a greater sense of design than that embodied by the male Google engineer designing for his own kind. It has certainly embraced the vagaries of human feelings--although not always successfully--and made the look of its pages sufficiently modern and uncluttered.

But the company has never sold a physical product. Overseeing the design of a cell phone by a hardware manufacturer would require looking at the world with a slightly re-framed set of eyes. What looks cool? What will look cool a year from now? Do people really want to buy a phone that is branded Facebook? Do people really love Facebook as a brand or do they merely enjoy the ease of communication that Facebook provides?

There is also the question of whether Facebook would choose to target a particular age group. Some speculated that the phone would be inexpensive and for the very young--a sort of FacebooKin. But Microsoft's experience there shows just how difficult that area might be. And Facebook surely sees itself as a rather classier brand than the idea of a kiddie phone would suggest.

If Facebook really was to produce something physical, the cool factor would have to be very high. Otherwise, can one really imagine people choosing to have two phones, one of which is Facebook specific?

Some believe that the hiring of Android's lead project manager, Erick Tseng, showed just how seriously Facebook is taking its mobile aspirations. But surely the hiring of a senior designer from Apple, rather than Google, might have signaled that the company is truly serious about producing a phone that might actually disrupt the market.