If there's one way of whipping the world of technology into a frenzy, it's taking the name of a huge company and adding the word 'phone'. It worked with Apple and Google, and in the last week it's worked with Facebook. We sort fact from fiction, rumour from blatant falsehood, to work out what Facebook is really up to.
Quick point of order: 'Facebook phone' is a great soundbite -- feel the alliteration -- and even if it isn't entirely accurate we're going to use it as shorthand here. It's just easier than saying 'handset built by a mobile phone manufacturer in conjunction with Facebook for deep integration between hardware and social networking features'. Okay?
What do the rumours say?
The story began last week with a TechCrunch report that Facebook is developing a mobile phone. Top Facebook developers Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos are said to be beavering away in a secret underground lab working on the device. Alright, it's probably just an office, but that's no fun.
What does Facebook say?
Facebook says it's "not building a phone", which is technically true -- Apple and Google don't "build" their phones either: hardware manufacturers do the actual screwing together of components.
Facebook happily admits that it is working on deep integration with other hardware and software. Zuckerberg has since told TechCrunch that a social experience has to be built "from the ground up", rather than bodging a social layer on to existing products -- a la Google -- which suggests Facebook wants to be part of the foundation of a device, rather than an app slapped on at the end.
But Facebook is a social network. What does it know about making phones?
Facebook won't make the hardware, and it won't make the operating system software either. INQ will take care of the hardware, and the software will probably be based on Google's Android. The Android OS is free and open source, so Facebook and friends are free to tinker to their hearts' content.
So is it real or not?
We reckon it is. Facebook has already dipped its toes in these waters with the INQ 1, INQ Chat 3G and friends, a range of affordable social-networking phones offered by 3 in the UK. This summer, the social network put feelers out to hardware manufacturers. And today, Bloomberg reports INQ is working with Facebook on two smart phones.
Really though, what's the point of a Facebook phone?
A Facebook phone would allow you to sign in once using your Facebook details, rather than signing in to each app individually. Your phone's hardware and apps, meshed with Facebook's deeply integrated software, will then know, share and react to where you are, who you're friends with and what you're interested in. Also: FarmVille.
That sounds cool. Can I have a Facebook phone?
Excitingly for us, Bloomberg reports that the INQ phones will arrive in Europe in the first half of 2011, and the US later in the year. It's all still very early days, so we have no idea what form the devices will take, how they'll be distributed, how much they'll cost, or indeed if they'll ever see the light of day at all.
What could possibly go wrong?
Social-networking phones aren't a new idea, and a big-name company isn't a guarantee that they'll be successful. Microsoft launched the Kin range of social blowers in April this year, and had pulled the plug by July. But Facebook is no Microsoft: it has the flexibility and user base to make a go of things.
One potential problem is the phone will arrive and no-one will care. Google's Nexus One was an excellent phone but had the marketing clout of a sock, failed to differentiate itself from the rest of the market, and went the way of the Kin after less than a year on sale. In a market where every phone is a Facebook phone -- at least to the consumer -- Zuckerberg and co. will have to come up with some killer features.
Finally, there's Facebook's perennial Achilles heel: privacy.
Aaargh! Not the P word!
Yes, dear reader, the P word. Facebook will be under intense scrutiny to safeguard the security of your phone and your data. Still, if the thought of a phone that can automatically check into Facebook Places or target ads at you depending on what you're doing fills you with dread, then don't buy the Facebook phone. Anything else?
I tuned out a while ago. Are you eating that doughnut?
No, help yourself.
Any time, dear reader. Any time.