The Facebook Phone: Forking Android Offers Both Promise and Pitfalls
This is the second in a series of posts this week about the emerging Facebook phone.
Could Google’s Android be Facebook’s new best friend?
It just might be, although it’s unlikely the feeling is mutual.
In making Android open source, Google has given would-be rivals many of the tools they need to offer mobile devices with services that compete directly with those of the search giant.
Once Google releases that version of Android, companies are free to do virtually anything they want with the code. It is this openness that attracted Facebook to Android, even though Google is probably the company’s fiercest rival.
That’s because Facebook, like others, can use Android in ways that compete quite directly with Google, all without paying that company a penny. However, device makers have some tough choices to make when they decide how far they are going to deviate from Google’s proscribed path. Changing the code — known as “forking” — creates both business and technological challenges.
Those that don’t meet certain compatibility and other requirements can’t use Google’s mobile services, for example. In some respects, that’s no big deal, since in many cases Facebook will want to use its services and those of its partners, rather than those from Google. However, it also means that Facebook won’t have access to some things it might want, such as the Android Market for third-party programs.
To the degree Facebook wants other Android apps to run, it will need an alternative, such as Amazon’s App Store, or lesser-known stores such as those offered by companies like Appia and GetJar.
In addition to missing out on Google services, making changes too deeply can mean that apps designed to run on Android won’t work, and that the software will be hard to update once Google comes out with a new version of Android.
For most phone makers, the benefits of following Google’s plan outweigh the opportunity to do deeper customization.
Not everyone is choosing to stick to that path, however. Amazon, for example, uses Android for the Kindle Fire, but has done so in its own way. Others have tweaked Android, too, such as tablet maker Fusion Garage, which has layered its own tiled interface over Android for its recently released Grid 10 tablet.
In the case of the Kindle Fire, some but not all Android apps will run on the tablet device. Amazon has also hidden much of the user interface that is part of the stock Android release, and has put in its own browser, music and video services in place of Google’s.
For Facebook, there is the same kind of opportunity to offer its own services, including messaging.
But customizing Android isn’t necessarily a panacea to make Facebook competitive in the mobile space.
First, social is an important component of the smartphone, but not the only one. Customers also want a phone that can easily access multimedia, download apps and perform other tasks far outside Facebook’s traditional wheelhouse.
As a result, Facebook’s foray into mobile may also mean it needs to either create or partner for many services it doesn’t offer currently, including music and video services.
Still, it is understandable that Facebook might see Android as its most attractive option, even if there are others. Intel has been looking for partners for its mobile Linux efforts, for example, while HP is eager to find a good home for webOS.
However, neither of these come with what Android does — a huge base of consumers and developers already using the operating system.