It's not really about the phone.
But it is about phones. Millions of smartphones on which Facebook is, at best, an app or two on a screen dominated by other companies and crowded with dozens of other apps.
That's a problem. Because for all of Facebook's talk about the value of social ads, it's now betting at least as much on television-style reach--the sheer scale of its 1 billion-plus audience. Between its newish Facebook Exchange that allows marketers to target people based on Web browsing habits and new ad formats that look like other ads on the Web, Facebook is clearly aiming to provide marketers with a broad platform on which to reach prospective customers.
But to do that, it needs a large, growing, and engaged audience--an audience that's rapidly ditching its desktops to do everything it can on smartphones and tablets. And the only way Facebook can keep all those people coming, and spending more time on the social network where they might encounter more ads, is to provide more stuff for them to do there--apps, messaging, and of course social networking of various kinds.
That's not so hard for Facebook on the desktop. People are now accustomed to typing in Facebook.com to commune with friends. Once they get there, Facebook does a pretty good job of providing an array of activities to keep them there.
On mobile devices, though, it's an entirely different situation. Apps are just one click away. One of those apps is Facebook's. But only one.
It hasn't escaped Facebook's notice that the companies that control those apps are Google and Apple and to some extent phone makers themselves. Up until last year, the company had hoped to do an end-run around them with its Web-based mobile site, but it was too slow and cumbersome. CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted Facebook wasted 18 months in the process, and there's little doubt the misstep played a big role in the slow start in mobile ads that helped stunt the company's initial public offering nearly a year ago.
But even with its own decent app now, Facebook has only managed to put itself on par with thousands of other apps. What Facebook is likely to try to start doing Thursday, with what many people assume will be a software skin atop Google's Android software called Facebook Home, is to get not just one click away from its users, but zero clicks away.
If its own apps and services load when you turn on the phone, as many people have speculated will happen with Facebook Home, you won't have to do anything to be on Facebook besides press the phone's on button. And if enough people install it or buy a phone with it already installed, then Facebook gains parity with Google, Apple, phone makers, and carriers as a platform for Zuckerberg's vision of a more open and connected world--and his business executives' vision of a new nexus of advertising revenues.
So unless Zuckerberg manages to surprise us with something unexpected, just remember not to let any shiny new phone blind you to what's really at stake: whether Facebook can fulfill its promise as the Internet's next truly great company.