Liz Gannes

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The Facebook Phone: The “Slayer” That Wasn’t

This is the third in a series of posts this week about the Facebook phone.

Facebook is now partnering with HTC to build an Android-based phone — code-named “Buffy” — around its own social operating system platform, as we reported yesterday.

But hasn’t Facebook been working on this phone thing for a long time?

This was the response from many people who track the company and recall the first reports about such a project from TechCrunch and Business Insider last September, as well as the bits and pieces that have cropped up since then.

The answer is complex, as Facebook’s original phone effort was stillborn.

About a year and a half ago, a Facebook mobile special ops team was formed, with its own building separate from the rest of the company. The workspace was accessible by keycard only to people intimately involved in the effort.

This Facebook team was indeed trying to build a phone — really build a phone — much as Apple did, with integrated hardware and software.

But when the project became too big and too political and different from where it started, many of the people involved left the company or went on extended leaves of absence, and the effort was shelved.

But the new effort had its origins in the first — including its code name, Buffy.

The first Facebook phone project was called the “Social Layer,” which was then shortened to “Slayer,” a sly mashup of the phrase.

But that was deemed too violent, and the gentler Buffy was chosen — after the popular television vampire slayer.

The team working on Slayer/Buffy included its leader, Chamath Palihapitiya, as well as Firefox founder and Facebook iPhone app creator Joe Hewitt, Google Chrome OS creator Matt Papakipos, biz dev exec Priti Choksi, developer Zhen Fang and designer Matt Cahill.

This was an exclusive and handpicked group, which generated awkwardness within Facebook’s flat organization.

That’s because Facebook has historically only ever made one product — its social platform. To have a secret team operating out of a separate building drew a lot of interest and also jealousy from other employees, multiple sources said.

The Slayers were working on everything from industrial design to carrier subsidies in order to build the ultimate Facebook phone. They had discussions with potential partners such as AT&T and Intel, sources said.

But, as often happens in ambitious efforts like this, the project quickly spiraled out of Facebook’s expertise and into budgets that were impossible without an IPO or perhaps a billion-dollar fund raising.

With its horizon more limited, those involved — many of them longtime Facebook employees — lost faith amid power struggles and a growing concern that they wouldn’t have the leeway to create something that could truly compete with Apple’s iPhone.

So the team scaled back and looked at building on top of Android. Soon many of them ended up quitting Facebook altogether.

Palihapitiya, for instance, founded his own venture capital firm in June, while Hewitt left Facebook in May to work on his own projects.

Thus the first version of Buffy was slain, until it recently got new life under Facebook CTO Bret Taylor. A source familiar with the older version of the project said the company “undid and then remade” the decision to make an Android-based phone emphasizing HTML5.

A spokesman for Facebook declined to comment on Buffy directly, but told AllThingsD:

“Our mobile strategy is simple: We think every mobile device is better if it is deeply social. We’re working across the entire mobile industry; with operators, hardware manufacturers, OS providers, and application developers to bring powerful social experiences to more people around the world.”

HTC also declined to comment.

But, said multiple sources, that’s where we are today, with an HTC-made Facebook phone being prepared for release in the next year and a half.

Rest in pieces, Slayer.

Related Posts on the Facebook Phone:

  1. It’s Finally Real and Its Name Is Buffy
  2. Forking Android Offers Both Promise and Pitfalls
  3. The “Slayer” That Wasn’t
  4. If It Comes, Will It Already Be Too Late?
  5. The Facebook Phone: Why Would You Want One?

Full Facebook Phone Coverage »

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik