Facebook just invited press to an event at its headquarters on April 4th to “Come See Our New Home On Android”. Sources tell us it will be a modified version of the Android operating system with deep native Facebook functionality on the homescreen that may live on an HTC handset. The evidence aligns to say this is the Facebook Phone announcement people have been speculating about for years.
One source recently told us to be on the look out for a Facebook mobile press event in early April where the social network would reveal an altered Android OS running on HTC. It’s said not to be a full-on rewrite of Android, but rather a “flavor” that will have all sorts of extra Facebook functionality built in. We’ve also heard it referred to as an “application layer”. Imagine Facebook’s integration with iOS 6, but on steroids, and built by Facebook itself. It could have a heavy reliance on Facebook’s native apps like Messenger, easy social sharing from anywhere on the phone, and more.
Rumors we’ve heard say that the project could actually be called “Facebook Home”, and it’s hallmark would be a heavily Facebook-ified mobile phone home screen. This could include Facebook news feed stories and data splayed out right on the home screen, along with easy access to Facebook apps.
Now we’ve received the invite to this supposed event we were told to watch for, and other signs seem to verify what our sources are saying. The announcement would align with what MG Siegler reported in January. It looks like MG might have been right about what was happening, but just with the wrong timing. [Update: Since we published, 9To5Google's has reported that Facebook and HTC have been developing a joint ad campaign.]
Finally, it meshes with AllThingsD‘s 2011 report that Facebook was building a phone with HTC. However, one source says that several key members of the Facebook OS team have left the company including Rasmus Andersson who recently went to Dropbox. That may have prompted Facebook to scale back its ambitions from true fork of Android to this more subtle modification.
In addition to a modified OS, I think Facebook could launch a more basic homescreen replacement similar to the SO.HO, Nova, or Go launcher for Android that would be compatible with standard versions of Android. This would give users a Facebook-heavy homescreen experience with much of the features described above, but without deeper operating system hooks and data access. As a complement to its modified OS, this Facebook Home Launcher would let Facebook’s new mobile developments extend to a wider range of devices beyond HTC. If Facebook really wanted to play it safe it could reveal this launcher instead of an OS modification, but more likely I see it as way for its work to gain greater reach.
Some think Facebook may be too small and young of a company to manufacture its own devices without thoroughly distracting itself, but it’s already got many building blocks of a mobile operating system. Its recent developments around VoIP could let it develop a Phone app alternative. When possible, Facebook could route calls over its self-built open sourced Skype alternative, and use normal a cellular connection if a call’s recipient isn’t equipped with the right Facebook app.
[Updates: This story originally published about Facebook launching a modified version of Android that creates a Facebook content-heavy home screen experience that will debut on an HTC handset, but has since been augmented with references to other sites who later reported their sources had heard similar details about the event. It's also been fleshed out with more info later drawn from our sources, specifically that the project may be called "Facebook Home" and that Facebook may have scaled back its Android modification ambitions over the years as some team members left the project and company.]
With deeper control of a modified operating system would come huge opportunities to collect data on its users. Facebook knows that who you SMS and call are important indicators of who your closest friends are. Its own version of Android could give it that info, which could be used to refine everything from what content you’re shown in the news feed to which friends faces are used in ads you see.
This announcement might not be a Facebook Phone, but rather a Facebook phone — one where everything the user sees is social by design, even if the handset’s innards are made by someone else.
Why would people want a Facebook phone? Read my follow-ups: