There is no Facebook phone, the world's largest social network told everyone firmly last year. Instead, the company said this afternoon, there are "dozens" of phones that will include a deep software integration with Facebook features and some with Facebook branding on the hardware. (Above, the INQ Cloud Touch.) Make no mistake, Facebook is taking clear steps to use software and brand licensing to change the way we relate to our phones. Might this new level of socialization of the phone be of comparable historic impact to telephone network interoperability or the rise of the mobile phone?
What does this kind of integration mean for users? It means that our online multi-media social connections, with the very different texture of interactions we've had with them, will now intersect with the old-fashioned world of telephone calls. Looking at the interface above, there's so much more going on here than pressing numbers to start a voice exchange.
It means that the interruptive nature of voice and SMS is now combined with the ever-present stream of the Facebook Newsfeed. That feed will be neither one-to-one like most phone calls are today, nor many-to-many like the old fashioned telephone "party lines." On those party lines neighbors all spoke at once on a common line, sharing gossip and arguments. They had to ask everyone else to get off the phone in order to have important, private calls.
Instead, a Facebook phone will offer a visual presentation of many different individuals' broadcasts and interactions among themselves. You may pick up your phone and see an update from your mother, followed by an update from your co-worker, but those two people might not ever know each other. They have their own view into the intersecting streams of personal updates and activities of the people they know.
I honestly believe that the psychological, cultural and political impacts of the Newsfeed experience - where our minds assume that all the people we see are themselves seeing something like we do, but in fact they are not - have not yet begun to be considered. Hundreds of millions of people have been using the Newsfeed already, it's become the dominant metaphor for all social software, beyond Facebook. But its convergence into the front face of a mobile device also used for voice communication and telling time is very meaningful. I intend to ask some anthropologists for their thoughts, for example.
Facebook Phones Will Ship Broken
At the same time, there's something worrisome about Facebook offering the lens through which we see our phones, too - isn't there? These Facebook phones aren't going to do much for your connection with friends on Twitter or Flickr. Why is the asynchronous, social-stream part of our mobile communication going to be siloed?
Old fashioned telephones began with no network at all - just wires from one phone to another. If you wanted to talk to more than one person, you had to get another phone. When you wanted someone to pick up the phone, you made whistling sounds into it until they heard you and picked it up!
In time corporate phone networks evolved and then later still, phone owners were able to call outside their own network and speak to customers of other phone companies. Imagine what it would be like if AT&T customers couldn't call T-Mobile customers from their phones! There likely wouldn't be a T-Mobile, or a Verizon, or very much competition. And without that competition, there would be little reason for dominate companies to innovate.
Facebook will likely argue that any other networks of interest can flow through Facebook itself, but it's a company - not a neutral protocol.
The telephone has always been a social technology, so let's not let Facebook say it's going to "make the phone social." It is going to change things, though. I think those changes are going to be dramatic.