Facebook phone? An Android launcher makes more sense

Facebook Phone Android

Have you heard? The almighty "Facebook phone" -- yes, the same one that's been rumored to be absolutely, definitely, positively coming any day now for the past 700 years -- is back in the news again.

Facebook sent an invite to reporters last night announcing an event that'll introduce the company's "new home on Android." The event is scheduled for next Thursday, April 4, in California.

Naturally, the Internet rumor mill didn't take long to spring into action. Reports around the Web predict everything from a full-blown custom phone, built in partnership with HTC, to a "modified version of the Android operating system with deep native Facebook functionality."

Someone kill me now.

Look -- we've been down this road before. Many times. And each time the notion of a "Facebook phone" comes up, we hear the same response from Facebook:

"WE'RE NOT BUILDING A FLIPPIN' PHONE."

Facebook Chief Hoodie Wearer Mark Zuckerberg addressed the ever-present rumor directly during an earnings call last summer:

There are lots of things that you can build in other operating systems ... that aren't really like building out a whole phone, which I think wouldn't really make much sense for us to do. ...

When we think about what we want to do right now, we want to increase the depth of the experience in addition to just growing users. We want to not just have apps that people use but also be kind of deeply integrated into the systems as possible. We want to support a development ecosystem, where other apps can build on top of Facebook.

The subject came up again in September during an interview with former circus TechCrunch ringleader Michael Arrington. When asked about the possibility of a phone, El Zucko said:

That’s always been the wrong strategy for us. It’s a juicy thing to say we’re building a phone, which is why people want to write about it. But it’s so clearly the wrong strategy for us. ...

Let’s say we built a phone, hypothetically. We’re not, by the way. ... But if we did, we could get maybe 10 or 15 million people to use it. The strategy we have is different from every other tech company that’s building their own hardware system, like Apple. We’re going in the opposite direction.

Oh, cool. Guess they're building a phone.

Hey, maybe it is all a big word game and Facebook is gonna blow our pants off next week with the long-anticipated fPhone. (If so, someone please restrain TechCrunch's MG Siegler in advance, as I suspect he has a celebratory fireworks show on standby.) When you put the pieces together, though, the notion of a single phone built for the social network sure seems like a silly idea.

First off, from a corporate perspective, it doesn't make much sense. As Facebook has said countless times, its goal is to get on as many devices as possible and become deeply integrated with users' lives. A "Facebook phone" isn't going to accomplish that; as The Big Z himself noted, it's going to attract a limited group of people at a scale too small to be significant.

Second, outside of a handful of teenage girls (and possibly Mr. Siegler), would anyone actually want a "Facebook phone"? Most people's lives don't revolve completely around Facebook -- so why would they choose a phone that does? It's one thing to have some software on your smartphone that makes it easy to interact with a social service. It's another to buy a phone that's built explicitly around that service (paging the HTC ChaCha...).

If Facebook wants to expand its mobile presence, the more sensible approach -- aside from simply building apps that don't suck -- would be to release a custom Android launcher. That's a type of program that replaces a device's stock home screen setup with a customized environment. Such apps are readily available for Android devices, though most focus more on providing power-user-style features and controls.

A custom launcher would let Facebook create an environment in which its services are prominently displayed -- a Facebook search tool in place of the Google bar, a Facebook chat shortcut in place of Google Talk, a Facebook mail widget in place of Gmail -- but the underlying operating system is still intact and maintained by the phone's manufacturer. And the tool could be downloaded by any user for use on any phone; installing it would be no more difficult than clicking "Install" in the Google Play Store and then opening the app once to initiate it.

Maybe that is what Facebook has planned. The theme of next week's event, after all, revolves around a "new home on Android." Based on some reports out there today, it's entirely possible.

The Wall Street Journal, for instance, published a story this morning suggesting that Facebook's new product would "display content from users’ Facebook accounts on a smartphone’s home screen," going on to say that the company would "initially demonstrate the capability on smartphones from HTC."

The WSJ also notes that the level of customization required for such software would not violate agreements manufacturers like HTC have with Google regarding their use of the Android OS. A custom launcher applied to an existing handset wouldn't violate those agreements; a fully reskinned operating system in which Google services are removed would.

The New York Times, meanwhile, says Facebook will introduce "a special version" of Android that's "modified to put the social network front and center on a smartphone," with the software debuting "on a handset made by HTC." Sure sounds like the type of thing a launcher could accomplish while also allowing owners of other devices to install it with ease. 

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I'm still not convinced anyone would actually want such Facebook-centric software as a prominent part of their phone, but we'll find out soon enough. Personally, I'm holding out hope for the Myspace Phone. Man, those glitter GIF wallpapers are totally gonna rock.

SEE ALSO: Find an awesome new launcher for your Android phone

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