Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Facebook's iPhone: The most ill-fated idea since Palm Pre?

May 28, 2012: 8:11 AM ET

The last time someone tried to copy Apple by hiring its engineers didn't go so well

Zuckerberg with iPhone. Photo: blog.panrotas.com.br

FORTUNE -- Remember Jon Rubinstein?

He headed up engineering for Steve Jobs, first at NeXT, then at Apple (AAPL), where he built the iMac, the PowerBook, the Power Macintosh and the iPod, before "retiring" a few weeks after publicly dissing the idea of merging a phone with a media player. ("Is there a toaster that also knows how to brew coffee?" he asked rhetorically. See Geeks with grudges.)

Rubinstein came out of retirement three years later, hired a bunch of Apple engineers, and built the Palm Pre, a touchscreen smartphone that was named Best of Show at CES 2009 by CNET and made PCWorld's list of the 20 biggest tech failures of 2010.

I bring up Rubinstein, who has since gone back into retirement, because according to Nick Bilton's report Monday in the New York Times, Facebook's (FB) Mark Zuckerberg is gearing up to build a smartphone and has begun by hiring more than half a dozen former Apple iPhone and iPad engineers.

"One engineer who formerly worked at Apple and worked on the iPhone said he had met with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, who then peppered him with questions about the inner workings of smartphones," Bilton writes. "It did not sound like idle intellectual curiosity, the engineer said; Mr. Zuckerberg asked about intricate details, including the types of chips used."

There's one important difference between Palm and Facebook. Palm had 15 years manufacturing experience before it built the ill-fated Pre, and Rubinstein even more. Facebook and Zuckerberg have none.

There are plenty of commentators who have tried to handicap the odds of Zuckerberg making a success of his rumored smartphone project, but none quite so trenchantly as Business Insider's Henry Blodget. See If Facebook Really Goes Into The Mobile Hardware Business, Investors Should Run Away Screaming.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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