Today, Facebook announced the Facebook Home suite that we've been hearing so much about. Well, to be more accurate, we've been hearing that Facebook is going to build its own phone and fork Android and create its own special social OS and that it would be the end of Google and that civilization will crash around us and we'll all wear monkey pelts and "Like" statuses by hurling spears through our enemies. Or something. Well, as it turns out, the world didn't end, Android is still whole, and Zuckerberg even thinks the idea of forking an entire OS to make an app is silly.
So, here's a question: why not? Why didn't Facebook fork Android? It's not like the social giant doesn't love the idea of having a platform that a lot of developers can write for. It's not like being the middle man doesn't have its perks. And it's sure as heck not like Facebook is a tiny little startup that can't get traction. So, what is it? When there is clearly demand (at least in the tech journalism world, which we'll get to later) for a Facebook phone and maybe even an OS, why would it not choose to fork Android and build its own?
A Million Phones Isn't Cool
For starters, building an OS is a huge undertaking. The tech commentariat and the pundits of the blogosphere love the idea of mashing up two unrelated projects like a fanfic author loves crossing Doctor Who and Firefly. However, have you stopped to consider what creating a forked OS would mean? It means that Facebook's primary competition would stop being Google+ and Twitter and start being iOS and Android.
In case you haven't checked the numbers recently, the total number of devices sold/activated between those two platforms easily exceeds a billion. Granted, comparing cumulative device activations with monthly active users is more than a little apples-to-oranges-ish, but the point is that Facebook would be in for much fiercer competition if it decided it wanted to create its own operating system.
More than that, though, making a Facebook-branded phone would not give the company near enough reach. There are over a billion monthly active users on the site. None of them pay a dime to use it. How many of those do you think would be willing to shell out $100 and sign a two-year contract (or pay a lot more for an unsubsidized device) just to have ever-so-slightly faster access to a social network? I'll give you a hint, not many.
"That's why they create an OS," some might say. "They don't need a phone, they need an army of phones."
Yes, but Facebook doesn't have an army. It has a hulk. One giant, all-powerful app. For all the sarcastic comments about "What's Facebook?" or "Who uses Facebook anymore?" it's still one of the most widely visited sites and apps on the internet. By a huge margin. Claiming otherwise is ignorance. Building an OS would be starting from square one with the hopes of creating what Google and Apple already have all over again.
What would be the benefit?
Creation Myths Need A Devil
Control is the only explanation that anyone who advocates (or speculates about) the idea of a forked version of Android can come up with. Facebook wants to own the user experience, own the data, and own the software stack. After all, that's how Google and Apple do it, right? Even Microsoft tries to get in on this action with its recent move to tie all your services into your Microsoft account.
There's just one problem: Facebook isn't Apple, Google, or Microsoft. When tech sites analyze the "big" companies, it always includes Facebook with them (as well as Amazon, again which we'll get to in a bit). But one of these companies is not like the other. The first three want to be your source for everything. Contacts, calendar, email, documents, videos, search, maps, reminders, notes, chat, oh yes and an operating system. Facebook does these things incidentally, but that is not its main goal. Facebook's main purpose is socialization. This is why it has a product called Events, not "Calendar." It's why there's no "Facebook Notes." It's why the site uses Bing maps instead of building its own. Facebook, will create a product that's similar to something another company does, or that competes with it in some way, but only if they can use it to augment its core business. It won't build a word processor just to have one. In short, Facebook doesn't want the same kind of control over all your data that the other big three want. Just your social data.
More important than the fact that Facebook doesn't want to control all your data (at least right now, anyway), is the fact that it doesn't need to in order to create a completely Facebook-ified exerience. This kind of customization is already allowed in Android. You may know this ability better as "manufacturer skins" or "custom launchers." Both of which Facebook introduced today.
For most devices, Facebook Home will be a replacement to the main launcher. Be it Samsung's Nature UX launcher on the GS3, HTC's Sense launcher on the One, or just the stock Android launcher, Facebook is planning to replace it entirely. This is something you can do yourself right now. In fact, you'll even be able to replace the Facebook Home launcher on the HTC First if you'd like. Craziness!
Speaking of, the other part of Facebook Home is the ability of manufacturers to build it in to their phones if they'd like. This actually results in a tad bit more customization than just the launcher. For example, notifications are built directly into Home with the HTC First, whereas any notifications that aren't Facebook on a regular phone will still use the shade. This kind of tweak requires the deeper changes that have to be built in to the device, but these are already permitted as well.
These are all Android.
Curiously, some pundits have a bit of trouble with this concept of manufacturer tweaks to Android, but this is the point. This is what Google intended from the very beginning. Android was never meant to be controlled, confined, or shoehorned into a certain look and feel. Facebook doesn't need to fork Android because for years, Mountain View has been asking companies to do exactly this.
You're Not A Fork, You're Just Trying So Hard To Be
You see similar arguments pop up all the time with other companies. Samsung, HTC, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and just about every other manufacturer on the planet has been accused of forking Android (or wanting to). Of them all, Amazon has probably come the closest. The UI on the Kindle Fire HD is entirely distinct and it even has its own Appstore. If there is any company out there that is capable of independently developing its own version of the OS, separate from any Google influence, it's Amazon. But even that isn't entirely forked, as it's still built on Ice Cream Sandwich and the apps in both markets are largely the same.
Everyone else, though? Not really. The beauty of the Android ecosystem is that it's customizable enough to compete with itself. This is something that most people analyzing the tech world don't seem to understand. When Microsoft gained a dominant position with Windows, it became stagnant for many years because it was so ubiquitous that everyone just had to use it, but there was almost nothing to compete with it. Which is why the Windows 8 change has been so drastic when threats suddenly arose.
Android does not have this problem. Android could be used in 100% of all mobile devices and it would not eliminate competition because it competes with itself. And that's good. It means things have to improve. Google might not always be the sole developer of the core of Android, but for right now, other companies being able to do what they want with it is exactly what Android was intended for. There's almost no need for any forking due to branding or ecosystem control reasons. In fact, unless a company has the peripheral services to replace Google entirely (an app store, data centers, etc.), it would be shooting itself in the foot to try.
Tech journalists like the idea, though. We love a good story. Sorry about that, but as writers we're always looking for the most interesting, entertaining way to look at a situation. And Facebook vs. Google sure does have a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Perhaps that's why the industry loves the idea of a Facebook phone. It's a clash of the titans.
Except it doesn't make sense. Zuckerberg even said so himself back in September. A sentiment he echoed today. It almost never makes sense. Forking a project is declaring independence and, at the moment at least, any company that uses Android already would lose more from erecting a wall between itself and Google than it would gain.