According to the New York Times, Facebook plans to release their own smartphone by next year. Citing sources inside the company, the report says Facebook has already hired more than half a dozen former Apple software and hardware engineers who worked on the iPhone.
“One engineer who formerly worked at Apple and worked on the iPhone said he had met with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, who then peppered him with questions about the inner workings of smartphones. It did not sound like idle intellectual curiosity, the engineer said; Mr. Zuckerberg asked about intricate details, including the types of chips used, he said. Another former Apple hardware engineer was recruited by a Facebook executive and was told about the company’s hardware explorations.”
This is not Facebook’s first exploration of the smartphone market. In 2010, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was working on a smartphone, but the project crumbled after the company realized the difficulties involved. AllThingsD reported last year that Facebook and HTC had entered a partnership to create a smartphone, code-named “Buffy,” which apparently still in the works.
And herein lies Facebook’s problem. Saddled with the disappointing opening for their IPO, analysts and consumers alike are starting to ask some tough questions: How much of a shelf life does this social network have? What’s the long-term future of the company? And what’s the next great Facebook innovation? Facebook has plenty of answers to these questions, but how many are realistic? We might jump on Facebook to see some vacation pictures or vent our frustrations, but a whole phone powered by it?
The Times report goes on to quote a Facebook employee who says: “Mark is worried that if he doesn’t create a mobile phone in the near future that Facebook will simply become an app on other mobile platforms.” That concern is understandable, but…isn’t that what Facebook is? When Facebook expanded with gaming and instant messaging and Timeline, it made sense; a natural progression for a brand devoted to organizing our social life. But does a jump into the smartphone world push the company too far past its core business?
This reminds me of mid-to-late-’90s convergence. The tech boom gave birth to new companies that were suddenly swallowed up by big conglomerations. Corporations were diversifying, and all of a sudden AOL was running a wrestling organization (WCW) and television networks (TNT, TBS), Disney owned two sports teams (the NHL’s Mighty Ducks and MLB’s Anaheim Angels), and things stopped making sense. What can Facebook bring to the table as a mobile platform that it doesn’t already do as an app? How will that differ from the iPhone or Google’s Android devices? And does the love/hate relationship Facebook users have for the brand translate into monetary sales? This should be interesting.