Will developers embrace the Facebook smartphone?

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Facebook has consistently shot down rumors it will introduce its own branded smartphone, but the buzz is getting louder--and harder to deny. All Things Digital reports the social networking giant is collaborating with Taiwanese manufacturer HTC to build an Android-powered device delivering deep integration of its services. The smartphone, code-named "Buffy" in honor of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is said to run a heavily modified version of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android OS, and will support HTML5. HTC and rival manufacturers have developed devices with dedicated Facebook buttons, but sources indicate the Buffy phone will incorporate social media services at a far deeper level, integrating contacts and sharing into the core of the user experience.

Facebook declined to comment directly on the report, telling All Things Digital "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.

A Facebook smartphone makes perfect sense given the company's recent efforts to assume greater control over the mobile experience. With more than 350 million users worldwide access its services via mobile device each month, Facebook recently expanded its Facebook Platform APIs and developer tools to Apple's iOS (NASDAQ:AAPL) and the mobile web, a step towards creating enhanced mobile interactions by introducing a series of social channels designed to galvanize app discovery and distribution. Developers with existing native iOS apps can begin integrating Facebook Platform tools using Facebook's iOS SDK--mobile web developers are recommended to leverage HTML5 to build cross-platform apps as well as the PhoneGap Facebook plugin for distribution across native app stores. 

The Facebook Platform effort mirrors the Facebook smartphone: Both initiatives are motivated by the company's ambitions to steer users away from native mobile applications and app stores towards a cross-platform, web-based mobile social experience. To that end, Business Insider reports that within Facebook, staffers barely regard the smartphone's operating system as a new version of Android--instead, it's considered a "homegrown" mobile OS, with Facebook planning to market it as such. The report adds that Facebook phone engineers have even debated whether "to bother" supporting Android applications.

The Facebook smartphone isn't expected to reach retail for another 12 to 18 months, so developers will have more than enough time to decide whether they wish to develop applications for the device. Assuming Facebook forgoes the app store option, it will have to offer developers a monetization option that's at least as compelling. Which may explain why for now, at least, native app development still rules the day: According to cross-platform development platform Appcelerator's new Q4 Mobile Developer Report, 91 percent of respondents are "very interested" in writing for Apple's iPhone, followed by the iPad at 88 percent. Interest in Android smartphone development is next at 83 percent, followed by Android tablet apps at 68 percent. HTML5 development trails at 66 percent, albeit ahead of Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone and Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry.

Developers also go where the users are--and initial consumer interest in the Facebook phone is limited. Among roughly 1,500 respondents replying to an All Things Digital online poll, almost 81 percent express no interest in owning a Facebook smartphone; less than 8 percent want one, and about 12 percent say they would possibly consider it. No matter what Facebook has in mind, developers will never embrace a mobile platform that consumers don't give their thumbs up. -Jason