The media is once again cueing up its Facebook phone speculation, but this time it may be for good reason. An invitation to an April 4 company event mentions Android, and that is conjuring up visions not only of a Facebook-branded smartphone, but a custom-designed version of Google's operating system that plays up social network functionality and features. The possibility that user data may be leveraged is also getting the attention of privacy advocates.
Facebook is inviting the media to "come see our new home on Android" during an April 4 event, sparking speculation that the social network may indeed be getting ready to introduce a branded smartphone.
There is also speculation that Facebook will unveil a modified version of the Android operating system with added social functionality.
The blog 9to5Google claims that HTC, which introduced a phone with a Facebook button in 2011, has been working with the social network on a major marketing campaign that will feature ads focusing on potential uses for the anticipated smartphone.
Possible Privacy Issues
Facebook may set off warning bells among privacy advocates whether it unveils a smartphone or a tweaked version of Android.
"When it comes to privacy, we should be very skeptical of whatever Facebook does," John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, told TechNewsWorld. "Just like with Google, Facebook's users are not its customers; they are Facebook's product."
However, "I have to think Facebook is cognizant of the Beaconesque pitfalls here," said Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology. That's because the company is still under a consent order from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and ongoing supervision by Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner office.
Facebook Beacon was a much-criticized feature of Facebook's ad system that sent data from external websites to its own. It was shut down in 2009 after the company faced a class-action lawsuit.
Facebook spokesperson Ulysses King declined to comment for this story.
A Facebook Phone's Face Value
If Facebook is actually working on a smartphone, the device would have "a heavy focus on social integration, improved notifications and updates, automatic location sharing, proximity alerts for friends, and aggressive alerting for a variety of events, including those driven by vendors," Rob Enderle, prinicipal with the Enderle Group told TechNewsWorld. However, "I'm expecting more of a collaboration and custom apps than a Facebook-driven phone."
A possible Facebook smartphone would "deeply integrate Facebook communication capabilities, such as messaging, perhaps some video chat, social gaming and so forth," said Michael Morgan of ABI Research. "All of this would … circumvent carrier services such as text and media messaging. Perhaps they would even focus on voice over IP that bypasses operator core networks when used on WiFi."
"Obviously there would be lots of opportunities to integrate, but if any of those aren't intuitive or clearly messaged to users, [Facebook] would get into trouble — both by losing consumer goodwill and with regulators," Brookman told TechNewsWorld.
It's not likely that Facebook will unveil its own smartphone because "it would be very difficult to get this type of phone off the ground, as you would need some operator support, and would not get that support," Morgan told TechNewsWorld.
"Facebook has already had HTC make them a phone with a dedicated Facebook button on it, and the device was not a success," he added.
That smartphone is the HTC Status, which was unveiled in the US in 2011.
Facebook Tweaks Android?
Facebook may also be working on its own version of Android. "Facebook would want to be able to deliver more of the desktop-level functionality to the mobile experience," Morgan said. "To do this, they might need additional control over certain things or additional unique HTML5 support."
Nearly two-thirds of the Android versions in the market "are custom and are outside of Google's control," Enderle said. "This is spread between Asian OEMs that separated from Google and Amazon's Kindle platform."
Facebook will leverage its own infrastructure with a tweaked version of Android in the same way Amazon leverages its infrastructure to give faster search results on its Kindle tablets. Such a tweaked version, Enderle said, "would be tied closely to Facebook's social experience and ad model."