Whatever Happened to the Facebook Phone?

A flop that may not get a second chance

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook’s phone collaboration with HTC was a flop back in 2013.
  • The company created an Android skin for the phone and dubbed it Facebook Home.
  • Privacy concerns might bug some consumers who might one day be in the market for a future Facebook phone.
Studio shot of women holding white HTC One
krystiannawrocki / Getty Images

Facebook’s reach is growing, even with looming antitrust hearings, but one area it’s probably not going to revisit anytime soon is making its own phone, experts say. 

Back in 2013, Facebook unveiled its first phone in collaboration with HTC to decidedly mixed reviews. The phone was a flop thanks to lackluster specifications and a less-than-ideal user interface. 

"Facebook phones lacked the hype to gain momentum," Yaniv Masjedi, CMO of Nextiva, said in an email interview. "Consumers saw alternatives that offered either better specs or had more affordable options."  

Skinning Android

Facebook must have figured that social media mavens craved a way to commune at all times with the service. Seven years ago, mobile strategy was in its infancy and the company was looking to expand onto new platforms.  

"[Mark] said, 'You know, we need to think about maybe putting mobile-first and being a mobile-first company,'" Facebook Vice President of Business and Marketing Partnerships David Fischer told Fortune in 2013. "We realigned the company around, so everybody was responsible for mobile."

The company created an Android skin for the phone and dubbed it "Facebook Home." Users were greeted with a home screen and lock screen replacement known as Cover Feed, which showed content posted by friends on Facebook along with notifications from other apps. It also enabled messaging via either Facebook or SMS from any app using a "Chat Heads" overlay.

HTC was the first phone manufacturer to bite with its "First" model and included the recently acquired Instagram as a pre-loaded app. The only carrier to take on the HTC First was AT&T, which limited potential buyers. By today’s standards, or even those of 2013, the specifications were meager; the First rocked a 4.3-inch LCD display with 720p resolution and Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor.

Critics were not kind to Facebook Home. 

"Facebook Home should put privacy advocates on alert, for this application erodes any idea of privacy," tech blogger Om Malik wrote. "If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action."

"Facebook phones lacked the hype to gain momentum."

Facebook executives said in May 2013 that the company was planning to revamp Home in response to consumer feedback. The first of these improvements came in an update released the following month, which added the ability to pin shortcuts to a tray on the bottom of the application menu screen. 

Then, in December 2013, Facebook released an update to Home, which added a more traditional home screen. But since then, Home hasn’t been updated and is no longer available in the Google Play Store.

Lots of Ads, Slow Sales

Facebook poured millions into advertising. Despite the ad blitz, sales were slow. 

"I definitely think Home is slower in rolling out than I would have hoped," Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview at a 2013 tech conference

It was a bad sign when AT&T slashed the price of the phone to 99 cents. It also wasn’t exactly an advertising executive’s dream when Time named the HTC First as one of the 47 "lamest moments in tech" for 2013. Then came the reports that AT&T had only sold 15,000 units of the First since its launch, and was planning to discontinue the device.

Privacy Concerns Could Overshadow Future Phones

Could Facebook ever revive its phone idea? The company has given no sign that it’s planning to do so, but privacy concerns might give pause to some consumers who might one day be in the market for a future Facebook phone.

The company is being sued for spying on Instagram users using the camera on the phone, Bloomberg reported. The lawsuit claims the photo-sharing application had been accessing the camera on the iPhone to spy on users even when they weren’t activated.

Facebook has denied the claim, but Augustin T. O'Brien Caceres, International Business Development Manager at the Law & Exports Group, says he wouldn’t consider buying a Facebook phone. He said in an email interview that Facebook is "a bad company that does not respect labor rights, civil rights or copyrights."

With some politicians seemingly intent on paring back Facebook’s reach, now hardly seems like the time for the company to consider another venture into its own phone. But Facebook has become so ubiquitous since its "Home" days that perhaps it’s no longer necessary.