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11.22.11

Are the Rumors About a Facebook Phone True—And Will It Live Up to Its Competitors?

The rumor mill on Tuesday focused on the social-networking company’s attempts to create a phone—but would a device by Facebook even be worth buying? Dan Lyons weighs in.

Why on earth does Facebook want to create a Facebook-branded phone? That’s what you may be wondering after learning that the social-networking company is in the midst of developing a “Facebook phone” that will run a version of Google’s Android operating system and be manufactured by HTC, a leading Android phone maker. According to All Things Digital, which broke the Facebook phone story, this device even has a cute codename—it’s called Buffy, as in the vampire slayer. The identity of the vampire to be slain by this Buffy remains unknown.

But why is Facebook doing this? Facebook claims to have more than 800 million active members, including 350 million who connect via mobile devices. So why not just create Facebook apps that can run on every phone out there? Facebook won’t say. They won’t even confirm they’re making a phone. They put out a statement saying mobile is important to them and that “every mobile device is better if it is deeply social.”

One issue, I suspect, is that Facebook realizes that the future is all about mobile, and that, much to its chagrin, the two companies that control the mobile space today—Apple and Google—don’t really like Facebook very much. As a result, those companies might be inclined, in the future, to find ways to put Facebook at a disadvantage.

Google, for example, is pushing its own social service, called Google+, as an alternative to Facebook. And there is plenty of bad blood between the two companies, especially after the huge fiasco earlier this year when Facebook got caught running a clumsy, covert smear campaign against Google, hiring outside PR flacks to spread lies about Google in the months preceding the Google+ announcement.

As for the other mobile game in town, Apple also has problems with Facebook. Apple tried to make a deal last year with Facebook to use its social-networking service as part of Ping, a new social feature that Apple was adding to its iTunes software. But the deal fell apart when Facebook insisted on what Steve Jobs called “onerous terms.”

And in August, when Apple introduced the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 5, it created tight integration with Twitter, a Facebook rival, but gave no such special treatment to Facebook. Tech pundit Robert Scoble reported that when he asked someone at Apple why Facebook was left out, he was told, “Because Mark Zuckerberg is a fucking asshole.”

Facebook needs to have a strong presence on mobile devices. One way to get that would be to learn to get along with other companies. But that lofty goal appears to be out of the cards, and so Facebook has chosen to undertake the rather expensive project of making a phone of its own.

According to All Things Digital, Facebook originally intended to create its own phone from the ground up, with its own integrated hardware and software. That project must not have worked out, so now Facebook is pursuing a less ambitious Plan B, where HTC makes the phone and Facebook software is tightly integrated into the operating system.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for it. It reportedly won’t reach the market for another 12 to 18 months, which means, just like the original project, this one too might well fall apart.

Despite the breathless reports Tuesday about the Buffy, there are some in the tech world who think the Facebook phone rumors are, well, just rumors. “My guess is that the rumors are wrong,” says Roger McNamee, head of Elevation Partners, a Silicon Valley investment firm. McNamee says it’s more likely that Facebook is creating a software toolkit that phone makers like HTC can use to create phones that have tight integration with Facebook. “It’s just a branding thing. In theory it’s a way for a phone maker to gain a competitive advantage.”

Which brings on the question: even if Facebook does make its own phone, who will want it? Facebook and HTC already tried something like this last summer when they introduced the HTC Status, a phone with a Facebook button on the front plate, running on the AT&T network. That device was a total dud.

Facebook’s larger problem is that while its service is immensely popular, the company itself is almost universally loathed, ranking among the most hated companies in America in one recent survey.

Facebook certainly hasn’t been succeeding in winning the news cycle lately. The latest two  stories about the site include how Facebook keeps getting hit with spam and porn and its new policy of “frictionless sharing,” where people automatically find out what you’re reading or listening to. The latter policy is annoying, creepy, and even counterproductive, as it causes some people to hold off on clicking on anything, as CNET columnist Molly Wood pointed out in a brilliant rant titled, “How Facebook Is Ruining Sharing.”

By now pretty much everyone has figured out that Facebook has no regard for its users and is only concerned with prying more and more personal information out of people and using that data to sell stuff. If Facebook does make a phone, it’s not too out there to presume it will be just another way for Facebook to track and “share” even more of what people do online.

Maybe Facebook will entice people by subsidizing the phone and selling it at low cost or even giving it away. And maybe some people will like that, especially young people.

As for me? The phone I want is the one where you pay a little extra and in exchange you are left alone. No ads, no tracking—and no sharing, no matter how “frictionless” that sharing claims to be. I don’t use Facebook very much at all, and even so, it creeps me out. The last thing I want to do is carry these guys around in my pocket with me.