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Facebook’s newest drama is a reminder of one of the company’s big failures: It never owned the phone

And now we’re seeing why that was a problem.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, HTC’s Peter Chou, left, and AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega hold up mobile phones.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with HTC’s Peter Chou, left, and AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega at the unveiling ofl Facebook Home back in 2013.
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Facebook is in trouble again, this time for giving phone makers access to its users’ data through long-standing partnership deals, which include some Chinese companies, like Huawei, which some claim are instruments of the Chinese government.

Because these deals were largely unknown, critics have blasted this as yet another example of how the social network isn’t as forthcoming about user privacy and that it continually fails to adequately monitor people’s data. (The company says that none of the deals have resulted in an abuse of data and that it’s currently winding them down.)

But if you set aside, for a moment, the question of Facebook’s wisdom in brokering these deals, a lot of the drama stems from one rarely mentioned Facebook failure: The company never made its own phone.

Facebook, since the beginning, has relied on other tech companies and their operating systems to deliver the Facebook product to consumers. That’s why these phone deals existed.

They allowed phone makers to reproduce Facebook features, like messaging, directly into the phones — an alternative solution to Facebook’s apps, which aren’t available on all phones. Facebook needed these deals to get its service to more people, and phone makers needed Facebook user data to replicate the experience.

Facebook has had so much success over the years that its lack of a phone or operating system is rarely mentioned as an issue. Instances like this, though, are a reminder that Facebook’s business is reliant on devices created by other companies. (Services created by other companies is what led to Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s other privacy headache.)

Facebook has played with phones in the past. It mulled building its own device and ended up instead creating Facebook Home, its operating system-like takeover for Android phones. Unveiled in 2013, it was a quick failure. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even acknowledged Facebook’s absence from the phone market during the company’s recent earnings call.

“One of my great regrets in how we’ve run the company so far is I feel like we didn’t get to shape the way that mobile platforms developed as much as would be good, because they were developed contemporaneously with Facebook early on,” Zuckerberg said.

Having a phone would not have solved this problem entirely, of course. Not all people use the same phone or would have used a Facebook phone, and as Zuckerberg pointed out, Facebook was a budding company when smartphones were first released, not the behemoth it is now.

But owning the entire product — from hardware to software — is important, and it’s clear that Facebook doesn’t want to be in a similar situation if virtual reality and augmented reality devices do someday become the new smartphones. That’s why it bought Oculus, and why it’s building its own AR glasses.

“[Technology] shouldn’t be designed around apps. It should be designed around our relationships, because that’s what matters to people,” Zuckerberg added on the call. “And that’s not the world we’re in on mobile. So I really am very committed to this idea of making sure that the next platform reflects those values that Facebook stands for.”

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