It’ll Be A Miracle If The Facebook Phone Doesn’t Suck

Here we go again: Facebook is apparently trying for the third time to get its phone project off the ground — snatching up iOS design and engineering talent left and right Nick Bilton is hearing.

We’re hearing (and seeing) similar regarding iOS talent, but with one caveat: Word on the street is that few mobile design whizzes actually want to work at Facebook, but everyone has their price, and post-IPO Mark Zuckerberg is willing to pay that price, whatever it is.

Does Facebook need a phone? Whatever the answer to that question is, the more important item is that it THINKS it needs a phone, most likely because it’s still lacking a clear mobile strategy with regards to revenue.

The platform wars have created the following paradox; in order to compete with Facebook, Google attempts to build a social network, In order to compete with Google, Facebook attempts to build a phone — both diverging away from their core competency in their efforts. I’ve never tried to build a phone, so I’m not going to begrudge anyone their ambitions, but a majority of industry insiders I’ve spoken to today have been super skeptical about the viability of a Facebook phone, some even coming right out and saying, “It’ll be a miracle if this doesn’t suck.”

Making phone hardware is hard work, much harder than anything Facebook has ever attempted in the past. The company as we have seen thrives on an iterative culture of hackathons where projects are completed over night. A low margin/high volume business like phone hardware, as Bret Taylor’s mobile and platform team seems to be painfully and publicly learning, takes years to do correctly.

And there is a huge risk that they will fail again.

This kind of project, as others have speculated, requires the kind of execution Facebook isn’t known for, and the company will most likely have to work with a third-party in order to actually ship. Some have suggested that it buy a beleaguered hardware startup like RIM or a stalwart like HTC because the kind of long-term focus required here is just not endemic to Facebook company culture.

Basically, there are a million ways this project will fail, and just one way it will work: Facebook ostensibly could succeed by tapping into the opening in the mobile market where people want an alternative to poorly designed Android phones — targeting people who would buy something other than an iPhone if the price point was $150 less and the design were at least a little bit more ambitious than what is currently available on Android. Picture a Lumia that’s one big Facebook app if you need a visual.

It’ll be a miracle if Facebook manages to come up with a finished product that’s designed and priced for everyone, captures at least 15% of the smart phone market, and becomes a direct competitor to Google. But stranger things have happened.

A Facebook phone seems inevitable. Mobile advancements like Apple’s iMessage, iOS Twitter integration and whatever Google is doing with Google+ mean that its status as the predominant interpersonal communications platform is being threatened. But it won’t introduce a phone until it absolutely thinks it has to, so the question becomes “How soon until it (thinks it) has to?” And “Will it be ready?”

Wherever the Facebook Mobile team is tonight, they should take the Microsoft Kin’s failure as a cautionary tale: Stay away from poor device design and arcane social plugins and focus on your strengths, bringing mainstay apps┬álike Instagram, Messenger, Camera, Events and Facebook Games front and center. And be a great phone first and foremost; the Facebook part should come second.