The Boy Who Cried Facebook Phone

In The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s forces capture Gollum, they torture him in Mordor but are only able to get two things out of him: “Shire” and “Baggins”. Over the past few days, we’ve had similar frustrations in trying to track down the content of the Facebook event taking place this coming Tuesday. Despite hounding a number of people who might be in the know, the only discernible things we were able to come up with was: “big deal” and “mobile”.

Interesting, but way too vague. But we endured. And now we have a bit more information. And that information points to a Facebook Phone …of some sort.

I know, I know. The Facebook Phone is so often rumored that it’s reaching “Apple Tablet” or “Apple Phone” levels at this point. And while those devices did eventually manifest themselves, the Facebook Phone not only has not, but it has been directly denied by everyone at Facebook — including Mark Zuckerberg himself — several times.

And yet, all kinds of things in tech have this funny way of only being false until they’re true. (See iPad mini or the “Google Phone“, for example.)

And so, with that in mind, multiple sources have told us that they expect some sort of Facebook Phone to be on display on Tuesday.

Now for the caveats (and they’re important). It’s not entirely clear if this will be an actual piece of Facebook branded hardware or if they will simply use hardware from a phone maker to show off some sort of new Facebook OS for mobile. That is to say, it could very well be that the “Facebook Phone” is more about a Facebook OS running on a phone (or a few phones).

This has always been a point of contention in the Facebook Phone saga. When Facebook has denied working on a phone in the past, they’ve typically been careful to say that they weren’t building a phone — as in, hardware. It’s just the type of non-denial denial that allows politicians to weasel their way out of sticky situations.

No, Facebook probably doesn’t have employees in some secret factory in Asia building mobile hardware (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been tinkering quite a bit back here in the U.S.). Instead, if there is any hardware, they undoubtedly partnered with an OEM to actually make it.

Or again, maybe they focused on the software and added it to some existing phone in the last mile. Given how prevalent OEM leaks are and that there hasn’t been any word in months (since HTC was last rumored to be building the Facebook Phone), this may be the most likely scenario.

Also complicating matters is all the chatter that Facebook has both publicly and privately told partners such as Google and Apple that they had no intention to build their own phones. Again, maybe it’s semantics. Or maybe Facebook simply changed their minds. Or maybe this phone/OS isn’t meant to compete head-on with the iPhone and the Android phones that Google focuses on. Perhaps this is meant solely for emerging markets.

This is all total speculation, but given Facebook’s charge to reach developing countries (where expensive smartphones capable of running Facebook’s apps are far less prevalent), perhaps they decided to help create their own low-end and low-cost smartphone — something one step up from a feature phone, but nothing like the quality/caliber of the iPhone or something like the Nexus devices.

Facebook has always said they want to enable the entire world to share. And that’s why projects like Facebook Zero were created. But a low-end smartphone with Facebook baked into everything could truly be a game-changing device in the third world. But again, that’s all speculation.

What about the OS itself? How would Facebook do it? Details are slim here as well, but the obvious answer would be a fork of Android. This would allow the OS to run hundreds of thousands of apps already out there. With Amazon seeing some success doing this with their Kindle Fire tablets (and soon their own phone as well), this could have emboldened Facebook to make the move now.

Another possibility is webOS. That OS won rave reviews as an elegant counter to iOS and Android when Palm released it several years ago. Then HP acquired the company, promising that they would “double down” on webOS. Then HP started playing a deadly game of musical chairs with their leadership and webOS was basically taken out back behind the shed. But HP did go out of their way to open-source the OS recently. So… I suppose it’s possible. But probably far less likely than Android simply because the ecosystem is already there and that OS is much more mature.

Probably even less likely is Facebook building their own OS from scratch. It’s simply a lot of work to do so. And again, without an ecosystem to support it, adoption could be rough (though maybe Facebook cares less about that if they’re targeting the emerging markets).

We do know that Facebook has previously had projects underway to see what they could do with Android. When we initially reported on the Facebook Phone project over two years ago, this was a big part of it. From our understanding, that team ultimately moved on and the project was stopped. But experimentations with Android continued. A new project surfaced later under the name “Project Buffy”, as AllThingsD reported in 2011.

That project was said to be under the direction of CTO Bret Taylor — but he left the company in June of last year. That report also singled out HTC as the partner Facebook was working with. Given HTC’s financial hardships while trying to play in the regular Android ecosystem, this could make sense even now. But who knows.

Another report, by The New York Times right before Taylor left, suggested the scope of the Facebook Phone project had been expanded. That report claimed Facebook was ramping up the hiring of engineers (particularly ex-Apple ones) including those who had worked on hardware.

We do know is that as recently as this past September at our TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Zuckerberg told my CrunchFund partner Michael Arrington that a Facebook Phone has “always been the wrong strategy for us.” “It’s a juicy thing to say we’re building a phone, which is why people want to write about it. But it’s so clearly the wrong strategy for us,” he went on to say. And just to drive the point home: “Let’s say we built a phone… hypothetically — we’re not, by the way.”

All pretty damning for a Facebook Phone project, right? Maybe. But again, all of that could technically be weaseled into a denial of a hardware project. Which is essentially what Zuckerberg denied to us in 2010 as well. (You’ll note that he specifically denied making an operating system at the time there as well, but there’s still wiggle room with forking Android, and that was over two years ago.) We later heard that news of the leak of the project made Zuckerberg as angry as some employees had ever seen him, so… One could imagine Zuckerberg getting up on stage on Tuesday, laughing, and saying something like “well we didn’t actually build the phone!”

Facebook is fairly good at keeping things close to the vest these days. And the truth is that there are a number of things the company could announce on Tuesday. But speculation that is something smaller, like a new app, doesn’t jibe with the multiple sources telling us this is going to be “a big deal”.

Also the fact that Facebook has called in the press from all over the world for this event is telling. Facebook isn’t just holding an event at their headquarters in Silicon Valley, they’re simultaneously holding an event in London as well.

So yes, this is us getting you all excited about a Facebook Phone project yet again. And given our record of success with these stories, you’ll be forgiven if you chalk this up to us once again “crying wolf”. But that doesn’t mean we’ve been wrong in the past. And that doesn’t mean we’re wrong here. Eventually, we’re going to be right on this. Promise*.

Now, as to whether or not anyone actually wants a Facebook Phone, that’s another matter

*fingers may be crossed behind my back for now.

[Disclosure: I own shares of Facebook in the public market because I’m a genius with impeccable timing. Also, handsome. CrunchFund, where I’m a general partner, also owns some shares of Facebook by way of an acquisition. Sadly, these shares don’t give me any special insight into things like Facebook Phones. CrunchFund is also an investor in GoPollGo, which I link to above. I used it to make the poll because it’s the most kickass, simple polling software out there. And because I was trying to subtly leak news of the Facebook Phone — though that didn’t work out too well that last time I tried to do that — hence, the preceding 1,500 words. More disclosure fun here.]