On the Facebook Anti-Phone: Lies, Damn Lies, and CEO Pontifications

There’s been a lot of static lately about how Facebook’s CEO stated that his company would never make a phone. Like just last September, at the TechCrunch conference when he stated:

It’s a juicy thing to say we’re building a phone, which is why people want to write about it. But it’s so clearly the wrong strategy for us.
(TechCrunch; Mark Zuckerberg: “A Facebook Phone Just Doesn’t Make Any Sense”)

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned covering the tech beat for almost two decades, is that CEOs love to spew BS to throw competitors and the public alike off their scent.

Take the late Steve Jobs. He was full of it. At the first All Things D conference in 2003 he stated:

There are no plans to make a tablet. It turns out people want keyboards. … “We look at the tablet and we think it’s going to fail.” Tablets appeal to rich guys with plenty of other PCs and devices already … We didn’t think we’d do well in the cell phone business. … We chose to do the iPod instead of a PDA.
(Bags and Baggage; Friday, May 30, 2003)

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, so it’s easy to pick apart his comments now, and Jobs may have been gripped by an uncharacteristic bout of naivety at the time. But that’s unlikely, as it’s now generally well-acknowledged that Apple was hard at work on the iPhone as early as mid-2004.

More likely Jobs was playing a game of bait-and-switch with Apple’s existing and future competitors.

Here’s a more recent example, from October 18, 2010:

7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad
(Wired; Steve Jobs Says 7-Inch Tablets Are ‘Dead on Arrival’)

Of course, the 7.9″ iPad Mini hit the streets 2 years later, almost to the day.

The other factors at play here are a changing marketplace and a company’s willingness to learn from and adapt to the marketplace. I think that’s the case with the iPad Mini: Apple just realized that it was wrong and people actually did want a smaller (or maybe just cheaper) tablet.

Of course there’s the lame hair-splitting that Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook did in regard to the iPad Mini’s screen dimensions:

We would not make a 7-inch tablet. We don’t think they’re good products. We would never make one. One of the reasons is size. Not sure if you saw our keynote, but the difference in just the real estate size in 7.9 vs. 7 is 35 percent, and when you look at usable area is much great than that, more like 57 percent.
(All Things D, Apple Talks Lower Margins Now, Ginormous Sales Later)

Uh huh. Yeah. Right. Because that’s how most consumers think, in terms of abstract pixel dimensions and “usable area”. Better to just bit the bullet and admite, we changed our minds.

All of this is to say, simply, that you can’t trust a CEO’s public statements about what their company might or might not do. It’s not in their interests to expose their company to competition before it’s prepared for it, and it’s not in the public’s interest to hear about products before they’re ready to ship (got it, RIM?). What’s more, contrary to popular belief, things change.

The other tool a CEO has to work with is innuendo. Like, Apple won’t produce a PDA, but it’ll produce a phone. The company won’t produce a Tablet PC, but it’ll produce a tablet. It’s not 7 inches, it’s 7.9.

So maybe Facebook won’t produce a phone. Instead, it’ll produce an anti-phone, or a handheld social media meter, or a AdBox or whatever marketing term they choose to identify a handheld computer that operates on the Facebook platform.

I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, though.