One thing to realize about Facebook is that it is a platform. A platform allows developers and companies to build on top of it, build apps for it and interact with it through a variety of mediums. In that way, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are both platforms, but Android and iOS are also operating systems - complex sets of software that connect hardware to the platform. Facebook is a fine platform, but it is not an operating system. And that is going to make the company’s attempt at building a “Facebook Phone” extremely difficult. 

Time is Against Facebook

One of the biggest problems for Facebook is time. Building a smartphone operating system is tedious work that takes years to even come out with a semi-functional device. In this, Facebook is almost starting from scratch. It did look into building its own phone in 2010, but that project fizzled out. It then thought it might be able to fork Android and put a Facebook skin on top (a la the Kindle Fire tablet) and was rumored to be in discussions with HTC about building a device. That too, apparently, was a nonstarter. 

Operating systems are hard to build. The New York Times reported last weekend that Facebook has been looking to hire mobile hardware specialists to help out its project. But it will take more than just a couple of new engineers for Facebook to pull off a new smartphone operating system. A hundred engineers would probably still take more than a year to get the specifications right. 

Let’s take a look at recent history:

  • Google bought Android in 2005. It did not release Android for distribution until 2007, and the OS did not gain a foothold in the market until 2009.
  • Apple reportedly began work on the iPhone in 2004 or earlier (with the idea of turning iPods into phones), and the first iPhone was not released until July 2007.
  • Nokia and Intel tried to create their own operating systems, failed and merged them into one project – MeeGo. That project is now dead and has been forked again to become Tizen. This has been going on for years, mostly driven by Intel’s desire to break into mobile and faltering every step of the way.
  • Hewlett-Packard bought an established operating system (webOS by Palm), spent a year working with it, released on a terrible tablet and gave up. It should be noted that while HP is shrinking, it was still a $30 billion company last quarter with a lot of resources.
  • Amazon started to hire Android engineers more than a year before it released the Kindle Fire.
  • Microsoft started building Windows Phone several years ago, and the operating system is still struggling.
  • Even established smartphone maker Research In Motion has struggled, taking more than a year after acquiring software company QNX to turn it into the BlackBerry PlayBook and now more than two years (and counting) to create a smartphone from the system. 

So, for the best of companies, releasing an operating system takes two to three years. It is no mistake that the top smartphone OS creators are Apple, Google and Microsoft. These are companies with a lot of money, a lot of resources and a lot of patience. 

Facebook, with its $16 billion IPO, now has a lot of money. What it does not have is the resources or patience. It needs people to build its OS, and it cannot afford to be patient because, if we go by the historic timescale, it will be 2015 or later before a real series of Facebook OS smartphones reach the market. That is assuming, of course, that Facebook really wants to enter the hardware space with its own OS and devices and not just fork Android. 

Difficulties Await

As a platform, Facebook has a ton of things going for it. Really, it is one of the most dynamic properties in the history of the Web. Therein lies the rub: Facebook is a platform by the Web, of the Web, for the Web. 

Facebook at its core is a browser-based platform with a social background that connects many people on the Web. The plumbing that the company has created in sharing content and people’s lives is impressive. The social graph is the backbone of everything Facebook does; it is no mistake that Google has tried to create its own social spine by combining search with personal profiles. Facebook already has that market covered and does it better than Google because, as a platform, Facebook is stronger. 

Google is an interesting comparison when thinking about a Facebook smartphone. Look at Android and its core applications. It has Gmail, calendars, search, Talk and Voice, an application repository (Google Play), music, movies (sold through Google Play and YouTube), books, browsers (both the native Android browser and Chrome Beta), Google Earth, maps and navigation, pictures (Picasa and Google+), social, payment processing, mobile wallet and more. Google built all of these services, and Android is essentially a discovery engine for those applications and a place where Google can push ads through AdMob.

Yet, without Android, Google would be in the same place that Facebook is: a Web platform with a bunch of good services and little presence on mobile. Just tying all those apps to a smartphone is not feasible; it needs a backbone to support it. That is why Google’s acquisition of Android in 2005 may turn out to be one of the most important acquisitions in the next 20 to 30 years of Web innovation. In 2005, it recognized that it had the makings of a very good Web platform but realized that to disseminate that platform, it also needed an operating system. It then created two: It bought Android and later built its Chrome OS. 

Seven years later, Facebook is in the same place that Google was in 2005. It has a very good Web platform and is kicking around how to turn that into an operating system. The elements of a user interface and application ecosystem are in place. What Facebook does well could translate just as well into an operating system with contacts, events, photos, content dissemination, chat and messaging (though not specifically email) and payments (Credits). What Facebook does not have - and would likely have to partner with other companies to produce - are books, video, maps and navigation, a browser (rumors are that it might acquire Opera) and music (Spotify might as well be a wholly owned subsidiary of Facebook), among others. 

For Facebook to turn a platform that is so Web-centric into an operating system, it will need technical expertise that the company just does not have at this point. 

Avenues Toward an OS

What, exactly, are Facebook’s options? It could buy an operating system such as webOS, join an open-source mobile project like Tizen, Ubuntu or Mozilla, partner with an OEM that already has an OS like BlackBerry, build its own proprietary OS (which would have the highest potential but also be the most difficult and time-consuming) or work with open-source technologies that are already available to create a mixture of everything above. That includes forking Android in the way that Amazon did to use as a base or working to advance HTML5 to the point that it is a true technology for a mobile operating system. It could also go the extreme route and buy a mobile original equipment manufacturer.

Let’s explore some of these options in more detail.

For the reasons specified above, building its own OS and hardware is the hardest option. Google did well by bringing in the Android team, a group that knew exactly what it was doing when it came to creating mobile software and tying it to hardware. Facebook does not quite have that type of luxury. It can poach people from other hardware designers, but a true one-punch acquisition of mobile experts is not as easy in 2012 as it was in 2005. 

The open-source route is interesting. Tizen could use a shot in the arm, and Facebook would be a great way to do it. Tizen would immediately benefit from the Facebook platform and ecosystem, and Facebook would benefit from an operating system that could be brought to market quicker than almost anything else out there. Mobile Ubuntu is still just a bit of a pipe dream and would still take several years to develop. Mozilla’s Boot2Gecko project would actually align very closely with how Facebook itself designs for mobile with its Web-based, HTML5 driven approach. However, whether Mozilla would want to go to market with Facebook is a different story. 

Forking Android is the easiest route. Facebook has already gone down this road with the so-called “Buffy” project and the alleged partnership with manufacturer HTC. Facebook could in turn replace the Google platform that permeates Android with its own services. Amazon has chosen this route, and while the implementation is not perfect, it is functional. Facebook also has a much more robust communications ecosystem than Amazon, and that would play well on a Facebook-flavored Android device. 

Partnering with an OEM like Research In Motion is a distinct possibility. RIM could build phones for Facebook as one of the “strategic partnerships” that CEO Thorsten Heins said the Canadian smartphone maker is exploring. What a partnership with RIM would not entail would be an actual operating system. Facebook could either work with RIM to integrate its platform into the QNX-based BlackBerry 10, or it would have to supply its own operating system - which is the problem in the first place. Outside of just giving BlackBerry 10 a “Facebook skin,” neither company is ready to create a true Facebook smartphone with its own operating system. 

HP’s webOS is basically dead, and Facebook would still need to find an OEM to create the phones. It is not a likely option. 

Then there is HTML5. From a purely theoretical perspective, this is what Facebook probably wants to do the most. But HTML5 is just not ready. The capabilities that Facebook needs to build into an OS - such as graphics rendering, device capabilities such as video/audio performance, access to contact lists and calendars, an accelerometer and more - are just not up to par and will not be for several years. Yet, as a Web-based set of standards, HTML5 makes the most sense because it would enable almost the entire Facebook platform to be layered on top of the underlying software that connects to the hardware. In many ways, building an HTML5 browser-based OS is exactly what Mozilla is doing and is similar to what Google has done with Chrome OS. 

What it all comes down to, once again, is time and patience. Facebook can piggyback off any number of technologies available. But, if it truly wants to be a disruptor and not just an also-ran in mobile, taking the hardest approach and creating a truly unique operating system is the best route. That will take patience and resources. Can CEO Mark Zuckerberg afford to be that patient? We will soon find out.