There was no holiday from rumors this Memorial Day weekend, as the blogosphere was abuzz with tales of Facebook’s larger-than-life mobile ambitions. Slammed for going to its big and troubled IPO without a solid mobile strategy, the company may be scrambling to put together a convincing story about how it will capture all of that monthly traffic apparently migrating to devices that as yet are not being monetized by the company.
Rumor #1: An Opera buyout. Both companies are issuing “no comments” according to TheNextWeb about a story first floated by Pocketlint that Facebook is looking at Norway’s Opera Software. The speculation is that in buying the company, which has among the most advanced mobile browsers, Facebook could integrate social network updates and posting with the mobile Web experience. Not a bad plan. Overlooked by too much of the coverage is that Opera also comes with recently acquired mobile ad networks Mobile Theory and 4th Screen Advertising. These companies join the existing ad-serving company AdMarvel in the Opera portfolio, which constitutes a substantial mobile ad platform.
Rumor #2: Facebook is hiring former Apple iPhone engineers in advance of releasing its own phone. The New York Times reports over the weekend that about a half dozen Apple vets are working on Facebook’s third attempt at crafting its own phone. The report suggests that company CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not want to be merely an app on other people’s operating systems.
To be sure, Facebook has already been playing around with bits and pieces that could add up to a mobile operating system of some kind. It recently released its camera app, which weirdly mimics some of the functionality of the Instagram app, which it just bought for a princely sum. It has internal messaging applications. It is creating an app store that promotes third-party apps. And of course it is itself already an app platform with built-in gaming. Add in a very good mobile browser and an existing ad network and you have gone much of the way to building a full-featured mobile platform that has established relationships.
All of this, to a CEO suddenly flush with cash and a valuation that rivals anything else Silicon Valley has produced, leads to a sensible impression that Facebook should be playing a more substantial role in the mobile ecology. But does anyone want a Facebook Phone any more than they wanted a Google phone? Do either of these brands have the kind of stature with consumers that would merit that level of identification? Does anyone want to think of their entire mobile lives existing within the contexts of these specific digital brands? Google’s Android OS succeeded in part from separate branding and its assurances of openness. Apple has unrivaled brand cachet, but its OS had always emphasized the platform nature of it all and third-party creativity.
The notion that people love or want to love most brands is one of the weird misnomers that must occur only in the bubble of boardrooms and the sycophantic marketers who yearn to serve them. Are there really any Facebook fan boys out there? Are there any silly cyber-citizens who bash bloggers at the mere whiff of disapproval for the social network in the same way Apple’s volunteer storm troopers police public sentiment? Even Android has its devout defenders, but not because anyone identifies with the Google ethos (is there one?) so much as what I detect as an embrace of some vague principles of platform openness that still have a cult among core geeks. You know they all have a Linux box somewhere and still bemoan the rise of the GUI. “Command line interfaces are so much more efficient,” my wife the computer programmer still mutters from time to time.
Facebook and Zuckerberg would do well not to drink their own Kool-Aid. As with all things mobile, the intimacy of the device requires a delicacy on the part of brands and what they ask of us here. It seems to me a bold move to release a Facebook phone that requires on the part of the consumer an almost embarrassing level of identification and devotion to a brand that I am not sure people respect and love in any meaningful way. Does anyone want to walk around with a blue F on the back of their smartphone?
They might do well to take a subtler iterative approach. I am still waiting for more Facebook third-party apps to work seamlessly across platforms. Build a better in-app browsing experience that turns the app into a compelling content discovery and sharing tool. Use the platform that already attracts hundreds of millions of people monthly to demonstrate to the user first that the company really does understand mobility -- that it really understands the mobile users’ wants and needs. Right now the company has proven it can make a merely serviceable mobile app, that it can attract nearly a billion users and tons of investors and cash. Which is all well and good if you want a lot of press attention. But if you want to be my personal mobile environment, if you want to be identified that intimately with all aspects of my personal and professional communication, then so far Facebook is talking past me -- not with me.