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The media has been quick to crush the notion of a Facebook phone in the wake of last week's reports that the company is indeed building one. But just because Facebook isn't in the hardware business doesn't mean it can't be successful.
Smartphones, even the iPhone, are becoming a commodity — shiny black touch screens, more powerful processors and apps that come in two flavors — iOS and Android. Those apps become unwieldy. The more you add, the more time you spend tapping between them.
If Facebook could build a mobile platform that connected the phone's functions, including apps that people use on their phones, and neatly tied your friends' into the mix, they could produce a device that people want.
What it shouldn't be
Simple Facebook integration won't be enough. Is the iPhone better with a built-in option to share to Twitter? (Did you even notice it?) Easy sharing isn't enough, nor is in-your-face friend feeds on your homescreen. Microsoft tried that with its pair of Kin "social phones" on Verizon. The Kins didn't sell and were pulled from shelves after just 48 days in July 2010. Last year, HTC tried with its Facebook phone, called Status, on AT&T. Again, phone buyers didn't bite — the phone's status shortly become "unavailable."
What about ad-subsidized devices? Amazon used that tactic to bring the price of its Kindle e-reader below $100, but there are already plenty of free smartphones available from the major carriers.
So what could Facebook do to make a better smartphone that people would clamor for?
What it could be
Paul Amsellem, president of mobile marketing company AppCity in Paris, predicts that Facebook will start by improving traditional phone features.
"Innovation will come from new functionality in SMS, MMS and instant messaging," Amsellem told TechNewsDaily in an email. "Nothing has moved on this sector for years, and SMS is still the largest mobile usage ever in the industry."
Facebook already has standalone messaging and camera apps. Its social graph connects users with all kinds of sites that post to their Timelines. Businesses of all types are present on Facebook. Chances are you're already connected to your personal trainer, your stylist and even your dentist. Facebook could leverage Facebook friends into a more useful network, what Amsellem calls a personal social network.
"Social can be friends and family, but also personal social network such as doctors, gym, sports, etc.," he said.
Coupling today's technology like GPS and access to online information with your personal connections could lead to real innovation. Take Scanadu, a health tech startup supported by NASA, and its Tricorder, a project aimed at turning phones into noninvasive medical diagnostic tools for families — à la Star Trek. Not only could you receive an instant diagnosis of your child's rash, but your pediatrician could weigh in on the results without a trip to her office.
If Facebook truly sets its sights high and can deliver on its rumored schedule, we may be looking at a device worthy of its 1 billion or more users in 2013.
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