The Facebook phone does exist. I’ve been using it for the last week. I hate it.
The phone comes with everything you would expect. I can post status updates from the home screen. The contacts list is populated with my Facebook friends (actually, my girlfriend’s friends, since I’m borrowing the phone from her). With the click of a button, I can access my profile or see my news feed. I can take photos with it and upload them directly to Facebook, and I can chat with my friends. It even comes with its own browser baked in – and, funnily enough, it’s made by Opera.
The form is pretty sleek, with curved corners and a rounded back, so the phone sits comfortably in the palm of my hand. The screen, however, is tiny, and the QWERTY keyboard is made up of clacky plastic buttons that must have been designed for five-year-old fingers. I do like, however, that it’s prepay, meaning I get by without a contract and just switch in a new SIM card whenever I travel to a new country.
This Facebook phone has been on the market since last August. It launched internationally, but hardly anyone noticed. That’s probably because it is targeted at emerging markets, which don’t enjoy many of the perks of modern telephony that are seen in the developed world. My girlfriend bought it in January on our last trip to New Zealand (which, I assure you, can approximately be described as developed) so she could have a cheap throwaway phone for the short time we were in the country. Now I’m using it while in Hong Kong, partly because I’m cheap and don’t want to overpay for my iPhone data, and partly because my mother taught me to never jailbreak. “Anything that hurts Steve Jobs is sinful,” she (never actually) said.
It’s called the Vodafone 555 Blue, and it’s built by TCL. It uses 2.5G/EDGE rather than 3G, has no wifi connectivity, a two-megapixel camera, and it runs on Vodafone’s operating system. At the time of its launch, Facebook’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, said Vodafone had “truly created the most brilliant product from the ground up.” Here’s a video of it in action.
Actually, the Vodafone 555 Blue – now there’s a name that just rolls off your tongue – is not even the only Facebook-enabled phone on the market. HTC has two Android smartphones optimized for the social network – the Salsa and the ChaCha – and INQ’s Cloud Touch and Cloud Q phones also play nicely with Zuckerberg’s baby.
My experience with the Vodafone 555 Blue Man Group has confirmed my belief that building a branded smartphone (as is now rumored more rampantly than ever) is a stupid idea, just like selling a Ferrari-branded laptop is totally naff. Tying a singular software brand so strongly to a mobile device is a recipe for certain marginalization.
Facebook is a brand that engenders strong emotions. Some people love to hate it. Others hate to love it. Almost everyone, to some extent, relies on it. All camps can be satisfied by Facebook having a strong presence on the mobile phone – I’ve said before that it should do so by building a browser that serves as a de facto operating system, and today it launched its App Center – but many will be repulsed by the social network “owning” the walkie-talkie in their hands.
Google tried it, of course, with the Nexus One, to lukewarm effect, before it switched focus to the operating system and bought Motorola Mobility. Android phones now dominate the smartphone market, but Google-branded devices are few and far between. In the same way Facebook might justify building a phone, a Twitter phone would also make sense. But that already exists: It’s called the iPhone.
I hate my Facebook phone, and it’s not only because it has crappy buttons and a busted messaging interface. (For some reason, it insists on displaying incoming messages above old messages I sent long ago, so I am constantly scrolling to see what has just been sent to me.) I hate it because it assumes that Facebook is my primary Internet service, that Twitter doesn’t matter, and that I will always want to live within a closed garden that itself lives inside a brick-walled compound.
If this is anything like what Facebook is considering for its mobile future, I’m moving to China.