According to a number of industry sources, Facebook has for some time now been planning a multi pronged strategy that would allow it to still operate on Google’s Android platform even if the two companies were at war. But don’t worry, despite a certain amount of media hysteria this doesn’t signal the beginning of the Tech Wars.
To understand what is going on you have to first be aware of a few important points. Android itself comes in two forms, there is the completely open source version of Android, which anyone can download, modify and use in any way they want, and then there is Google Android, which is the same basic code with a LOT of extra bells and whistles. In the early days the two versions were basically the same, with the only real difference being that the open source version came without Google’s apps, but over time this has changed. In a bid to free themselves and users from dependence on OEMs and phone networks who have often been slow to update phones to newer versions of Android, Google started to put more and more functionality into something called Google Play Services. This was good for the user, but fundamentally changed the relationship between Google and the OEMs.
OEMs have always had to complete a compatibility program to be allowed to use Google’s Apps and the Play Store on their phones. Now, however, instead of just losing some apps they would have to replace a whole lot of the core functionality too. Essential things common to any modern phone like notifications and payment services. This is where Facebook comes in to the story.
Facebook is massive. Over a billion people use it everyday to share the minutiae of their lives with friends, family and complete strangers. The majority of these people are doing some or all of their communication by mobile and since Android has more of that market than all of its competitors put together and multiplied several times, a spat with Google could cause them problems.
Facebook are preparing for this possibility by figuring ways to get at their audience even if they were expelled from the Play Store. Some of this is active and highly visible. They’ve tried twice to make a “Facebook phone” in conjunction with HTC. There’s doubt they have had discussions similar to the ones Microsoft has had with smaller OEMs that has led to Microsoft apps being installed by default on certain devices. But the sources say that facebook is also working on its own notification and payment systems, which they could even then let other app developers use, potentially undercutting the 30% slice of the pie that Google takes from each transaction.
So, if you’re a Facebook user on Android, should you be worried? The answer is no, not at all. Facebook is a business and you don’t get to stay in business very long if you don’t prepare for the possibility of change in the market, which is exactly what they are doing. It’s also worth pointing out that they are following the lead of another company who took action to secure its platform against market change, a company called Google. The main reason Google bought Android was as a safe home for it’s apps and services, where they couldn’t be held to ransom by the equipment manufacturers or dumped in favour of another alternative.
Of course, at some point Facebook may decide there is more money in going their own way, but they would have to be pretty sure that people would go with them. Not everyone can afford to replace their phone to get access to their favourite app when you can download a number of alternative social networks for free in seconds.