A Facebook Phone?

An interesting story developed yesterday, starting with a Mike Arrington scoop for TechCrunch purporting that “Facebook Is Secretly Building a Phone”:

Facebook is building a mobile phone, says a source who has knowledge of the project. Or rather, they’re building the software for the phone and working with a third party to actually build the hardware. Which is exactly what Apple and everyone else does, too.

(That’s actually not what Apple does. Apple does its own software and hardware engineering; it only farms out manufacturing. What Arrington is alleging is more along the lines of what Google did with the Nexus One — Google designed the software, HTC the hardware.)

Arrington says Facebook engineers Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos are leading the project. Hewitt wrote the popular Facebook iPhone app. Papakipos left Google to join Facebook in June. His job at Google? Leading the Chrome OS project.

Soon after the story hit, Facebook issued a denial:

“Facebook is not building a phone,” Facebook spokesperson Jaime Schopflin told CNET today. “Our view is that almost all experiences would be better if they were social, so integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems is a good way to enable this.

But the only thing they really denied was that they were “building a phone”. That’s what Arrington’s headline claimed, but it’s not what his story actually alleged.

And lo, corroborating reports soon appeared. Dan Frommer at Alley Insider:

Facebook is “for sure” using Google’s Android operating system as the basis for its phone software, according to a plugged-in Silicon Valley source. This means that Google is now essentially helping Facebook attempt to destroy Google!

Frommer also points out that Hewitt has been tweeting recently about Android’s developer tools. (Could be he’s just working on an Android Facebook app, of course.)

Then, late in the day, Scott Ard reported for CNet that, despite the denial earlier in the day, Facebook was indeed “mulling a branded smartphone”:

Facebook denied a story published this weekend that says the company is “building a mobile phone,” but CNET has confirmed that the social-networking giant has reached out to hardware manufacturers and carriers seeking input on a potential Facebook-branded phone.

As for Facebook’s “not building a phone” denial, Ard wrote:

However, Facebook appears to be splitting hairs over the phrase “building a phone” because the reality is that the company this summer did seek input from hardware manufacturers and carriers as it kicks the tires on whether a Facebook phone indeed makes sense. The idea is simple: an outside company such as Samsung or HTC would build the hardware for an Android-powered phone that would have Facebook’s social-networking features deeply integrated and would run on a carrier such as AT&T, possibly under an exclusive deal similar to the iPhone.

This actually makes a lot of sense. Facebook’s role on such a phone would be like iTunes’s role in iOS, and Google’s services — Gmail, contacts, calendars, etc. — in Android. I don’t know what “deep integration” means. I think the key point would be simplicity. Particularly single sign-in. Sign into the phone with your Facebook account, and you’re done.

It’d have to do more than just sync your address book with your Facebook contacts to be worthwhile. Imagine, say, if the phone omits the Android Market in lieu of Facebook’s own mobile app store. Could be that Facebook, as a company, doesn’t want to be seen as one app among thousands in mobile app stores from Apple, Google, and Microsoft, but rather as a peer to those companies — a mobile titan with its own app store.

The whole story could be bullshit, but I’m a big believer in the tenet that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. With three different publications backing the story, and a rather curious hardware-focused denial from Facebook, there’s quite a bit of smoke here.