Facebook Isn’t Forking Android, They’re Spooning With It

Facebook is absolutely, positively, 100 percent not working on a phone.

The first rule of tech news remains intact: when a company says they’re definitely not doing something, it’s as sure a sign as you can get that they will eventually do said thing.

“Today we’re finally gonna talk about that Facebook Phone…,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said only slightly in jest to kick off today’s event. He then went on to give the same type of semantics argument he’s been giving for years. “So we’re not building a phone. And we’re not building an operating system.” Both are technically true statements.

And yet. Boom. Facebook Phone.

Here’s the thing: you can argue semantics about basically anything in the world. Does Apple actually build the iPhone? Or does Foxconn? Does Amazon build their own OS? Or does Google? Is the phone I held in my hand today real? Or are we in The Matrix?

We all knew the Facebook Phone was coming. And here it is. Far more interesting to me now is what exactly it means for the ecosystem in general.

“You don’t need to fork Android to do this,” Zuckerberg said at the beginning of his keynote. This is a theme that would come up again and again throughout the presentation. At one point, there was even a cute blue and white fork icon that was crossed out. You simply must understand: Facebook is not forking Android!

But why does that matter? It doesn’t.

There’s this negative connotation around the term “forking,” perhaps because a few others, notably Amazon, have forked Android in a way Google probably would not prefer. But the forking argument is another semantics one. No, Facebook isn’t technically forking Android, but what they’re doing is arguably more invasive. As I tweeted earlier, they’re essentially “spooning” it.

And make no mistake, Facebook is the big spoon here.

Sure, Facebook is saying all the right things now. How many times today did we hear about how great it is that Android is so “open”? And yes, Google did have to approve this new HTC First (Facebook Phone) device in order for it to be certified to carry the Google Apps and Play Store. But my sense is still that this tone may change in the coming months as Google and Facebook find themselves more at odds. We’ll see.

As Zuckerberg himself said today, “The home screen is really the soul of your phone.” Why would Google not want to own that soul? Especially on an OS they built? They may be fine with Facebook Home for now, but the countdown to Google+ Home or, more interestingly, Google Now Home, is officially on. And when that hits…

Facebook tried to convey something that wasn’t technically true during the keynote today. They tried to make us believe that Facebook Home is just another app. Or perhaps more accurately, a better kind of app. That is technically true of the version that will be in the Google Play store next week. But the version that will come pre-installed on the HTC First is different.

That version uses hooks in Android that are not normally exposed to standard apps. This is to allow Facebook Home to show all third-party app notifications, not just the ones coming from Facebook’s app. The downloadable Google Play version of Facebook Home will not be able to do this. HTC, using their previous experience from their “Sense” skins, did this for Facebook, as I understand it. And that’s why Google had to approve it beforehand. (Which, again, they did.)

Now, maybe Google opens up these hooks in a future version of Android and this difference is moot. Or maybe they don’t. You have to wonder why they haven’t yet, especially with so many other “skins” out there in the Android world. Today, though, the difference remains.

And so, while not forking Android, Facebook isn’t exactly just building your standard app, either. And if the technical argument isn’t enough to convince you, just think about how many other app makers partner with OEMs. And how many get key space inside the retail stores of a carrier partner?

This Facebook Phone is a bigger deal than Facebook wants to let on. And understandably so. You don’t announce you’re going to rob someone’s house before you rob it. And just because, in the case of Android, Google left the doors unlocked, it doesn’t mean it’s not a robbery.

(The situation becomes much more gray when you consider that, technically, Google invited them in by way of a third-party guest. But that would still be robbery. Even if they helped move around some furniture before they left with the goods. But now I’m way too deep in the woods…)

If Facebook Home isn’t any good, none of this will likely matter. I only got to play around with it for a few minutes today, but I was generally impressed by how smooth everything seemed to operate. It seems almost un-Android-like in that regard. But giving good demo is not the same as being a good product. So we’ll have to wait and see on that front, as well.

Still, I think today’s maneuver was a very smart one by Facebook. They’re not forking Android because that implies something bad. They’re spooning with Android, which is fine — nice, even. Never mind the fact that Google probably won’t be too fond of either eventually for the same underlying reasons.

These days, Samsung doesn’t seem to mention Android too often even though they’re so reliant on the OS. But Google seems okay with that as the Search and Play revenues continue to flow in. Similarly, Facebook didn’t mention the Android-maker too often today, and I doubt they will going forward with this and future Facebook Phones. And Google should be okay with that as long as the Search and Play revenues continue to flow in.

But what if Facebook Home eventually swaps out Google Search for the search engine of their investor and close partner, Microsoft? Or what if they put Facebook Search front and center instead? Or what if people search less in general because they just use this device for Facebook services and little else? Or what if Facebook decides to use their own app store instead of Google Play?

Or what if Google, sick of seeing Samsung, Amazon, and now Facebook fondle Android, decides that they want to own the branding of their creation? Again, what if they want to be the “soul of your phone”? There are a lot of variables here going forward.

“It is possible that they go back on their commitment to openness. But I don’t think they will. And it would take a lot of effort,” Zuckerberg said when asked about Google today. That reeks of one of those statements that will come back to haunt. Or maybe he’s just being disingenuous, feigning naiveness — because, again, maybe he’s the thief to Google’s joker.

For now, Facebook and Google are strange bedfellows, spooning.

[photo: flickr/Jeff Kubina]