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SmartPhones, Facebook and the Button Madness

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Of all the smartphone makers whose names are not Apple, HTC is the most impressive. An upstart company from Taiwan, it has done a great job of building iconic hardware using commodity platforms. It has developed branding and messaging that’s edgy, cool and fun.

More importantly, it was the first company to embrace the idea of developing a user experience layer in order to differentiate itself from the commodity OS-based hardware devices that would flood the market. So, it came up with HTC Sense. A lot of credit for this unique sensibility should go to Horace Luke, HTC’s chief innovation officer, who has been the lightening rod behind the company’s design philosophy.

Perhaps that’s why I’m amazed he allowed HTC to release the abominations that are being called HTC’s Facebook phones. These are essentially nothing but regular HTC devices with a dedicated button for Facebook, which provides:

one-touch access to your friends and family. With a simple touch of the Facebook button, your network is immediately privy to the song you’re listening to, the new restaurant you’re checking out or interesting website you’ve stumbled upon.

These aren’t really Facebook phones, which are a whole different beast, and will be game changers when they come to market. If you want to know what a real Facebook Phone will look like – let’s just say it won’t be anything like HTC ChaCha or HTC Salsa. Kevin Tofel pointed out, “aside from the dedicated hardware button, many of the Facebook integrations are already available in widgets or natively in Android.” As I wrote earlier, a real Facebook phone will be a phone that embeds Facebook services in the very core of the phone and uses a Facebook user experience layer.

What these phones seem to be is a marketing gimmick cooked up by the marketing department at HTC and not the innovators. I can guarantee you Apple would never pull a cheesy move like this. Remember the long-forgotten days when Motorola introduced an iTunes phone? Well, we saw how that worked out.

This move by HTC reminds me of the late-90s, when the Internet mania was in full swing. Many companies were jostling for pole position and ended up paying a lot of money to PC makers to place their Internet access software or browser software on the desktop. Others went so far as to bake these Internet software/services into their devices via dedicated buttons. PC makers made those moves by sacrificing the needs of their primary customers and letting the greed get the better of them.

This time around, the situation is entirely different. Hardware makers are leveraging hot Internet brands to differentiate themselves and sell their increasingly commoditized hardware. By building a Facebook button, HTC is essentially trying to anoint Facebook as the social network of choice.

What happens if Facebook becomes less popular and something else pops up? Will HTC make a phone dedicated to that service? Will we soon see a Twitter button, an Angry Birds button, and a Bing button? Or all of them? Will HTC soon be selling hundreds of different models, each with dedicated button? If yes, how will they bring them to market?

The sad part is, now that HTC has gone ahead and done this, it’s almost a certainty that others are going to copy them and start rolling out phones with dedicated buttons. It won’t be good for the overall smartphone market.

The idea of dedicated buttons goes against the very design philosophy behind smartphone platforms. I believe smartphones are blank canvases meant to be hyper-personalized by average Joes and Janes, who download the apps they want and make the device fit their life. I am sorry, HTC; I don’t want you or anyone else making a choice for me via dedicated buttons.

App of the Day: TuneUp

If you’re like me, then you have a music library that’s ungainly and a tad unorganized. For some odd reason, many of the tunes you’ve gathered over the years have missing tags or cover art. Until recently, I had a tough time trying to clean it all up. Then I discovered TuneUp, which works on both Macs and PCs. It’s like sending your expensive shirts for French laundry, except for music. It fixes everything. The free version has advertising, while the premium service costs $29.95, with a yearly renewal fee of $19.95.

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12 Responses to “SmartPhones, Facebook and the Button Madness”

  1. Paul Malin

    If the buttons were preloaded as Facebook, Foursquare etc. with a useful function (location checkin) but could be re-assigned (to Gowalla) and that meant a different logo showed up on the button, then we would be on to something.

    But then again that could begin to further splinter the world for app developers.


  2. Completely disagree with this, I think that it’s a fantastic move by HTC, especially as they have a large enough range of other devices.

    For my *personal* phone, my main criteria for choosing it are:
    – Decent camera & photo library
    – Great Facebook experience
    – Threaded SMS
    – Good browser
    – Good maps

    I really don’t need or want a “blank canvas” smartphone. I’d much rather have 3 or 4 of the most important apps done well, than access to a zillion lousy ones. Given there’s 200m-odd users of FB on mobile, I’d imagine that there’s enough scope for an FB-optimised one to do well in the market.

    Sure, it’s not ideal for an enterprise-grade product, but then neither is one in a zebra-print case, and I still see plenty of those.

    Dean Bubley

  3. Thanks for the info about TuneUp. Ever since the upgrade to Android 2.2, my tunes for which I have no album name are all lumped together as SD Card, and I have no quick and easy way of accessing those tunes. I’ll have to see if I can use it to get album names.

  4. Lightning rod – unless it is used to lighten an image / area.

    My myTouch 3g has SIX dedicated buttons, although Android 2.2 introduced touch-screen unlock and sound on/off. It would make more sense to have fewer buttons, especially when using the phone in the car and in the dark.

    Facebook button? Boo. Hiss.

    Contrary to common misconceptions, not everyone has succumbed to Facebook fever. Some of us are content with keeping our private lives private.

  5. Windows Phone 7 is the real Facebook phone. Your contacts (Poeple) are regularly updated with what people put on social networks including windows live and xbox live… thus taking away the need to launch a Facebook app or an internet browser.

  6. Mala Bhargava

    I couldn’t agree more with this point of view. Dedicated buttons are in any case redundant when you have widgets that can do the same thing in addition to giving you a choice. It’s undemocratic to put in a Facebook button — and very gimmicky.
    As for a sharing button, again no end of widgets and shortcuts that will do the same. Tweetdeck’s widget is a great example. Let’s you share to Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare exceedingly quickly. I’m all in favor of hardware buttons being replaced by software ones, leaving more real estate and room for comfort while using a phone.

  7. Wont’ sell. If you use a phone like that, you look like a tool who’s addicted to facebook. Few other manufacturers might follow, but I think they will be targeted at low-end market. I can’t imagine bringing a facebook phone to work, unless you’re a “social media marketer”.

  8. Martin Lawrence


    From a design perspective I fully agree with you. A branded button is abhorrent.

    However, if I look at this as a neutral “share” button, this could be useful. It will be most interesting to see if such a button changes the sheer number of occasions that people share simple experiences. Even if apps exist, that provide similar functionality, a hardware button has a different level of presence: no matter what I currently do, watch a video or any such thing, I have this dedicated share button. It is always available, always at the same place, just like the camera-button.

    In a related matter, I *hate* not having a simple “tweet this page” in my iphone safari browser – having one would make sharing so much easier.

    Depending on how simple the follow-on dialog is, a simple one-click-share could prove addictive. That is, if it works like a camera-shutter-button (first presss: open app, second press: shoot photo) this would make sharing simple. However, if I am sitting in a restaurant listening to music, does it accurately guess if I want to “like” the music or the place? What place – indoors geoloaction is quite inaccurate – having to select one of ten nearby places would kill the simplicity.