Ready for ‘Facebook,’ the Verb?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came forward to clarify rampant rumors that his company was working with a mobile handset manufacturer to make a Facebook-branded smartphone. The problem is, he didn’t address the question.

In an interview this week with TechCrunch, Zuckerberg asserted that people can mean “very different things” when they use the phrase “build a phone.” Facebook is not looking to compete with smartphone manufacturers, he said, nor is it interested in developing its own handset operating system.

Clear as Mud

Perhaps the reason Zuckerberg is hedging his bets so carefully is that the company really doesn’t know yet what it intends to do to take the Facebook experience from the level of application to the level of ubiquitous social networking interface, suggested Josh Martin, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics.

There’s no good reason yet for Facebook to “take any option off the table,” he told TechNewsWorld.

What the market is likely to see is a number of different trial projects. “They’ve got enough money to experiment,” Martin stressed.

Facebook the Verb

A possible roadblock to acceptance of a Facebook phone is that consumers are not quite ready to accept Facebook as a verb rather than the name of a site or application, Carl Howe, director with the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Long ago, Xerox made photocopying into a verb, and, more recently, Google made querying a search engine into one, too. The real question is whether consumers are ready “to make Facebook the be-all and end-all of their online existence,” Howe said — especially their mobile online existence.

“I’m not sure they’ve gotten permission to be a real consumer brand, as opposed to an activity,” Howe noted. As one of myriad social networking services — albeit an enormous one — Facebook may not do well if it’s perceived to be acting as mediary between mobile users and their beloved Internet.

“Is Facebook the center of your mobility?” Howe asked. “That’s yet for consumers to decide.”

Chatting With INQ?

Still, the manufacture of phones designed specifically toward social networking continues to roll forward, noted Martin. UK-based INQ Mobile is a prime example. The company, owned by mobile provider Hutchison Whampoa, already markets a phone it calls the “Chat 3G,” but which is popularly referred to as a “Facebook Phone.” In fact, the company’s current tagline uses Facebook terminology when it declares that “yesterday is so 317 updates ago.”

Neither Facebook nor INQ responded to requests for comment in time for publication of this article, but Martin maintains that the company is an obvious choice if Facebook is indeed considering rolling out its own phone.

“To some extent, it’s worth likening them to Netflix,” he explained. “There’s a benefit to Facebook in having the ability to be ubiquitous, to be on as many devices as they can.”

Thus, the Facebook Phone may not be an all-or-nothing proposition, but rather one of many approaches. Although Zuckerberg has said the company is not working on a mobile OS now, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of developing one in the future, Martin argued, “especially if they think they can develop an OS that’s attractive to a specific market that they can’t attract otherwise.”

Still, the company must be careful not to alienate current partners with lots of clout in the mobile arena, like Apple and Google, Martin noted.

Any move that would “disincentivize” partners that have made significant investments already in smartphone hardware and software should give Facebook “reason for pause,” he said.

Facebook also has dedicated significant resources toward its development of apps and interfaces based on HTML5, Martin pointed out. That’s a significant investment in a platform-neutral and OS-neutral strategy, and the company is unlikely to abandon it anytime soon.

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