Analysis Facebook's attempt to recruit smartphone engineers is being taken as proof that the boy Zuck is chasing mobile hardware again - but this ignores the cheaper and faster alternative of installing a Facebook OS onto existing devices.
Creating electronic kit is expensive, tricky and risky. However, if Facebook focussed its software brains on an Android operating system spin of its own, and made that build available for download to selected handsets, then it could stand atop Google's hard work while undermining the Chocolate Factory's revenue stream, all without spending the money it costs to develop its own hardware.
Such a move isn't unprecedented: Google's Chinese equivalent, Baidu, offers a custom spin of Android which takes a Google Nexus S handset and replaces all of Google's services with its own.
The popular Cyanogen spin of Android is one of a handful put together by hobbyists and available for more than fifty different Android handsets. Bereft of branded services it demonstrates that the Linux-based OS is open enough for anyone to take advantage of.
Android itself is royalty free. However, Facebook - run by billionaire boydroid Mark Zuckerberg - would need to replace all of Google's applications, just as Amazon has done for the Kindle Fire.
Microsoft would be the logical choice for the critical search and maps functionality: Redmond isn't likely to object to greater fragmentation of the Android ecosystem although the fact that the maps would, ultimately, come from Nokia might present a source of friction. Patent licences from Microsoft would probably be a wise investment too, given the litigious nature of the mobile industry right now.
Some have suggested that Facebook might swallow Opera Software, for its browser and its ability to dynamically insert adverts into web pages (an ability Opera itself acquired when it bought AdMarvel). Facebook will certainly want to log web traffic, but there are cheaper alternatives: BitStream's Bolt Browser does content compression and could probably be bought in cheaply; and the Dolphin browser runs on iPhones and could be extended to provide a good deal of what Opera does. Buying Opera might be easier, though, and provide some desktop potential.
What's in store for a Facebook phone store
Facebook would obviously want to develop email, messaging and social apps in-house, and if it's going to start logging phone calls and SMS messages (as Google gave itself permission to start doing in March) then it will need custom dialling software too. It might decide to scoop up one if the existing alternative application stores, such as SlideME, to add functionality to the Facebook app recommendation engine.
All that would be true if Facebook were developing its own branded hardware, but the software approach offers greater flexibility and a faster time-to-market as well as being cheaper.
A Facebook "Brush" (as Baidu calls its own downloadable Android build) could be made available for the most popular handsets alongside the existing Facebook applications for Android and iOS. Once it had gained some momentum there would be nothing to prevent manufacturers from providing Facebook variants to retailers. It's worth remembering that the Samsungs of this world pay for Android - not for the basic open-source OS, but for all those applications (GMail, Maps, Play, etc.) that are licensed from Google at an undisclosed rate, one which Facebook could choose to undercut.
If Facebook can get a few punters walking into shops and asking if phones will run the new "Facebook OS" then manufacturers might decide Facebook is a more comfortable partner than Google.
Deciding to go it alone with custom hardware has to be an ego trip of epic proportions, based on an absolute confidence that Facebook can do everything better than anyone else. It's tempting to believe that no- ne could be that arrogant, but then Zuckerberg did negotiate a billion-dollar deal to buy Instagram over coffee on a sofa without board approval: underestimating his arrogance could well be a mistake. ®
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