facebook phoneWill the world ever see a Facebook phone? In the sense of a device designed and branded by Facebook, probably not. The idea has been around for several years and has been losing steam lately. The idea of Facebook selling phones was never a very good one, and the prototypes were not very compelling.

Instead, Facebook has taken a much more cunning approach toward mobile devices. It would let someone else — say Apple or Google — design, build, and sell the phones, and then Facebook would infect them like a virus. In recent months, as Facebook has gotten dead serious about mobile, it’s slowly unfurled a strategy that, piece by piece, is revealing itself to be more of a hack than an actual product.

Notably, Facebook bought Instagram, revamped its own app into a speedier and cleaner version of its original clunky ware, and worked with Apple to integrate its social network into the iPhone’s software. Facebook has also added many features to its iPhone app, but Apple has been much friendlier about working with Facebook, perhaps because it doesn’t need another Web giant designing mobile devices to rival its core product. It already has Google for that.

In the past year or so, Facebook has introduced apps like Poke and Facebook Messenger and is gradually building in more ambitious features like search and its own app store. And now, according to a news report that looks a lot like a trial balloon on privacy concerns, Facebook is building an app that would track users whereabouts and behaviors even when they’re not running the Facebook app.

Facebook is still far from the gold standard in mobile apps. The new, improved Facebook app is still too buggy and some of its smart mobile acquisitions have been smothered inside its juggernaut culture. Mark Zuckerberg may declare that Facebook is a mobile company because more people – 680 million a month, or 64 percent of total users – visit Facebook on mobile devices than on desktops. But Facebook still gets only 23 percent of its revenue from the mobile Web. By any measure, Facebook has a long way to go in mobile. What it does have now is the foundation for an aggressive, long-term strategy.

Nor is Facebook breaking new ground by tracking users wherever their phones go. Smartphones running Apple’s or Google’s operating software routinely track users, and native apps like Google Now and Apple’s Find My Friends rely on continuous location data to work. But many smartphone owners either have come to trust those companies with their personal data or have become savvy enough to switch off location settings in hopes of maintaining privacy and prolonging battery life.

But this is Facebook. The company has had more than its share of privacy controversies for a good reason – it’s philosophically inclined to push its users out of their privacy comfort zones. From early experiments like Beacon to more recent ones like frictionless sharing (experiments that failed in themselves, but succeeded in making users more willing to share more data), Facebook’s approach to privacy has been: It’s better ask for forgiveness than permission.

It will be interesting to see if Google also allows Facebook’s app to lurk in the background of its Android phones. There is no love lost between the two rivals, and they have pushed each other to open up more on data sharing. If this become a popular feature of iPhones – and given enough time it could – Google might do so, but it could be hurting its own Google+ network in the process.

It will be even more interesting to see just how far Apple goes in letting Facebook stitch its network into iOS. Pushing on privacy is business as usual for Facebook, and Facebook will be background tracking iPhone user activities with Apple’s blessing. That may explain the trial balloon from a company that is normally tight-lipped about new apps and features. Facebook can deal with the blowback of a privacy flareup because it’s Facebook. Apple, however, may not welcome another controversy right now.

Apple has had its own privacy issues, but has proven thinner-skinned in its response. The company’s products are designed to offer what it believes is the best consumer experience, even if that vision departs from those of many consumers. It’s more about enhancing comfort zones, not pushing them. Beyond that, as we saw with Flash, one big deal-breaker for Apple has always been battery life. Background tracking can drain batteries quickly.

Apple and Facebook seem to be getting cozier by the month. It may not be long before the two companies begin to appear like ideal partners for a merger – Apple’s iOS needs a powerful social network, Facebook needs a smartphone. It’s unlikely to happen because Zuckerberg is adamant that the company isn’t for sale. But in terms of strategy, the two companies are becoming more and more aligned.

In one sense, however, they are not yet aligned: Apple’s preserve-the-consumer-experience ethic is at odds with Facebook’s push-the-user-on-privacy approach. The former is better suited to the present market, the latter to the future. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is right: The more the Web evolves, the more we will have to quit worrying and learn to share our lives with big data – or we’ll have to stay off the Internet.

Barring a major privacy backlash, Apple may start to inch toward’s Facebook’s more aggressive approach to collecting and using customer data. An app tracking user whereabouts in the background is one early step.

And if so, Facebook, over time, could infect iOS with its social-network virus. Users, over time, may well grow comfortable showing their location to friends and advertisers. Android phone owners may, over time, come to expect Facebook track their activities as well. If all of that happens, Facebook won’t need its own phone anymore.

[Image courtesy SimonQ錫濛譙]