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Facebook Considered Push into Open-Source Android Phones

As Facebook has prepared for the possibility of being removed from Google Play app store on Android phones, it also has contemplated an intriguing push to integrate itself with Android phones that aren’t controlled by Google, a small but significant percentage of the total Android ecosystem.

Toward the end of 2015, Facebook was looking at whether it might offer certain services to app developers, like helping them send app-related notifications to people’s phones or handling in-app payments and related fraud-prevention issues for them, according to two people briefed on the discussions. These tools would only be offered on so-called open-source Android phones that don’t come preloaded with Google Mobile Services.

The Takeaway
Facebook has considered integrating its services more closely with open-source Android phones, a move which could undermine Google’s efforts to reduce the number of such phones that don’t include Google Mobile Services like the Google Play app store.

That would mean Facebook would mirror some of the tools that Google offers to developers on traditional Android phones. It’s not clear whether Facebook will ultimately decide to pursue the opportunity.

Such a move could undermine Google’s efforts to reduce the number of open-source Android phones that don’t include Google Mobile Services like the Google Play app store. (For more on that, see this article).

The way Facebook might do so seems complicated. It would likely have to offer its software to Android phone makers or wireless carriers that currently preload the Facebook app on phones that aren’t controlled by Google. Those phones are mostly in countries such as Russia and developing nations.

As an enticement, Facebook could offer the phone makers or carriers a significant cut of in-app purchases from apps like games. While such game apps would need to be downloaded from small independent Android app stores, Facebook’s infrastructure could potentially handle user payments within those kinds of apps as well as deal with potential payment-fraud issues. Facebook could give close to 30% to its partners.

For comparison purposes, on phones with Google Mobile Services, Google initially gave its Android phone-maker or carrier partners 25% of such revenue, keeping 5% for itself; more recently, the split was 15%-15%. The other 70% goes to the app developers.

As an enticement, Facebook could offer the phone makers or carriers a significant cut of in-app purchases from apps like games.

Facebook could conceivably offer its own app store for open-source Android phones, given that it has deep relationships with thousands of app developers already (many apps let people log in using their Facebook credentials), and has access to their APKs, the files that would be necessary to load the apps onto people’s phones. But launching a full app catalog to open-source Android phone users doesn’t seem to be on the table, says one person briefed on the discussions last year.

The thinking behind the idea to provide services to app developers on open-source Android phones is that Facebook would become a trusted partner of the phone makers or carriers for such services and it would make their phones better for apps generally. In return, Facebook would spread its tentacles further into the plumbing of the Android app ecosystem and gain cred among developers for handling payments, notifications and other services. Those developers might later decide to use Facebook’s app-development tools like Parse; integrate Facebook’s ad products into their apps; or advertise their apps on Facebook’s app to in order to reach new customers.

Open-source Android phones accounted for about 15% of all Android devices shipped during the second half of last year, according to ABI Research. These phones mostly go to customers in China, where Google Web services are largely blocked, or among smaller phone makers that don’t have an official Android distribution deal with Google, like Highscreen in Russia. Most of those manufacturers do business in developing countries like the Philippines. Plenty of people who own open-source Android phones use Facebook. On such phones, Facebook already pushes app software updates directly to the phone and pushes notifications from its apps to the devices using its own back-end systems.


Amir Efrati is executive editor at The Information, which he helped to launch in 2013. Previously he spent nine years as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, reporting on white-collar crime and later about technology. He can be reached at [email protected] and is on Twitter @amir