Stay Focused And Keep Shipping: What Is Facebook Thinking With Its Phone Folly?

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Earlier today, I wrote about Facebook designers asking, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Apparently, Facebook’s answer is “build a phone.”

First, Facebook announced that it was releasing its App Center in Brazil, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey, an expansion from exclusively English-speaking countries.

What does every good smartphone have? An app store.

Then, Bloomberg reported that Facebook is working with HTC to release a Facebook phone in mid-2013. If the report is correct, this will be Facebook’s first foray into hardware.

While a Facebook phone has been rumored for some time now, this is the first time we have heard a specific timeline for the release.

So, as has been asked many times, why is Facebook so hell bent on building its own phone?

Earlier this month, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said mobile was Facebook’s biggest challenge. But mobile and hardware are not the same thing. Yes, it’s absolutely a problem that Facebook makes very little money off its mobile site and app, especially given how much time people are spending on Facebook mobile.

But is the solution to build your own phone? Is that even a solution—or is it a loosely related, lateral product launch?

If Facebook’s push was purely mobile, they would be improving their mobile app, working on better mobile monetization plans and working with Apple and Google to be integrated into their operating systems.

Oh, wait. That’s exactly what they’re doing

Facebook relationship with Apple has never been better and it will be integrated into the next version of iOS. Facebook has a team of former Apple engineers working to improve its iOS app, and I’m sure they are working to better monetize their apps.

But by building a phone, they are going head to head with Apple and Google, fighting much more established products in untested waters, rather than collaborating.

And it’s a mistake. Facebook thinks it needs to do battle with Google and Apple in every theater. As more and more people switch to smartphones, the profit pie looks more attractive by the day.

But Jobs didn’t lead Apple into social for a reason (lol, Ping). Google hasn’t done that well, comparatively, with social. Twitter isn’t in hardware, presumably for a reason.

What’s Facebook’s end goal here? If it’s to topple the iPhone, I simply don’t see it happening. So the next most reasonable target must be to take some of Android’s market share. Not only will that be difficult for Facebook to do with their first iteration of a phone, but frankly, it’s beneath the social giant. Their resources are best spent elsewhere.

Yes, Facebook is currently reliant on Apple and Google for mobile. But it’s not a one way street–they’re co-dependent. Facebook has 900 million users; if Apple or Google were to restrict their app on their mobile devices, the other one or a third competitor could see many more customers who want Facebook mobile. It would cost Facebook far less time, energy and money to focus on top-notch apps that are well monetized than to build a phone. And it would succeed. That’s more than we can say about the unseen phone.

Facebook keeps shipping. But they need to stay focused.