Smartphone manufacturer HTC is no longer “quietly brilliant.” HTC now wants to be as in your face as possible to attract consumers from the likes of Apple and Samsung. What better way for HTC to make a major splash than by being the manufacturer of the so-called “Facebook Phone” the social network is expected to be announced this week?
That is, of course, if anybody actually wants a Facebook Phone. There is serious doubt if that will actually be the case. If nobody wants to buy a phone with tightly integrated Facebook skin, HTC will have spent a significant amount of time and probably a fair amount of money on a project that will see no tangible returns. That can be bad for HTC, a once-proud company with dwindling sales that only has so many bullets it can fire into the Smartphone Wars before its armory turns up empty.
A History With Facebook
For nearly two years, HTC has been rumored to be working with Facebook in the so-called “Project Buffy.” The project, named after Joss Whedon’s cult TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, is supposed to be a smartphone that runs some type of Facebook-styled mobile operating system on custom hardware. Facebook supposedly was looking for hardware engineers and mobile operating system developers to help turn the dream into reality.
The most likely outcome, as I pointed out in May 2012, was that Facebook would take a kernel from Google’s Android and fork it into its own operating system in the same way that Amazon has done with the Kindle Fire. According to TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, the operating system for the Facebook Phone will be less of a true fork from Android and more of an “application layer” – a skin on Android in the same vein of Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC Sense and the now-defunct MotoBlur from Motorola.
HTC has worked with Facebook before. The Taiwanese mobile manufacturer released the “HTC Status” (also known as the HTC ChaCha) in 2011 with a “dedicated Facebook button.” That button was essentially a hardware feature that launched the Facebook Android app. HTC also made the “Salsa” with Facebook buttons that it showed off at Mobile World Congress in 2011.
You ever see anybody using a ChaCha/Status? Anywhere? Not bloody likely. And that could be a problem for HTC with this new Facebook Phone.
As ReadWrite editor Brian Proffitt wrote this morning, Facebook is going to have a hell of a time trying to figure out who to sell this device to. Businesses won’t want it. Neither will teenagers.
In the smartphone industry, there is a very delicate line for success when it comes to mobile operating systems. Essentially, you need a value play for your core business to make it work. Apple’s value is the hardware and profit margins it reaps. Google’s value from Android is to learn more about its users so to be able to better sell them advertising. BlackBerry traditionally was aimed at enterprises but had no clear advantage for regular consumers, who switched to Android/iPhone when the value became clear. Similarly, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile CE faded when its value proposition (other than merely existing) was eroded by Android/iOS. Microsoft has not been able to build a consistent following of its new Windows Phone products because of that same lack of a value proposition.
Targeting the value proposition will make it difficult for upstarts to enter the field. For instance, what does Canonical really have to offer to consumers that is also of value to its core business with an Ubuntu mobile operating system? Same goes for Tizen or Firefox OS.
And now, apparently, for Facebook.
Facebook’s play is very similar to Google’s. The more it knows about its users, the better it can serve them advertising. A Facebook Phone would tell the social giant a lot about its users. It could then push users to its contextual Facebook Graph Search and serve them ads through it. Facebook could also integrate its various Android apps (Messenger, Camera etc.) and application store to offer more value and context.
You know what? Google already does that and probably will do it better. It has been imagining Android and its future for a long time and each successive iteration is better, more contextual and slicker looking than the last. Facebook has neither the experience or the time to match Android.
That leaves HTC in Lame Duck Limbo.
ReadWrite writer Brian Hall points out that Facebook might not even need a Facebook Phone. If Facebook lacks an original value proposition, then HTC is going to have a hell of a time trying to sell a Facebook Phone.
Bring In The Noise, Bring In The Funk
Where does that leave HTC in its battle to regain market share and respectability?
Basically, to make a lot of noise.
Expect a heavy series of marketing and advertising from both Facebook and HTC about a Facebook Phone. In autumn 2012, HTC said that one of the reasons it had fallen behind was the lack of effective marketing. At the time, we pointed out that HTC’s problems went way beyond marketing. That will likely be the case here as well. It doesn’t matter how much noise a company makes if it is selling a product that nobody wants.