Why Google axed Facebook contact syncing in Android 2.3.3

Android 2.3.3 has recently landed on the Nexus S, but brings with it an interesting development: on the Nexus S it ends contact syncing with the Facebook app.

Some will see this spat between Google and Facebook as one that is all about data. The cynic in us could say that Google just wants to get its hands on your Facebook contacts, rather than having them locked away. Using the contacts API for Android would mean that Facebook contact data could then be moved over to Google.

Effectively it would be a route by which Google could unlock Facebook and you could have all your contacts then reside neatly with Google Contacts, online, rather than just on your device. Of course, this brings with it a privacy issue and both Google and Facebook have been in the firing line over data privacy in the past.

There is a point in Google’s favour that we sympathise with, and it’s all about managing expectations. Once you’ve built your contacts list on your device (and after all it is your contacts list) you can lose it when you move or change phone, or when you sign-in to your Google Contacts on another device, you might find you don’t get what you expect.

The second point, that Google reinforces, is that it is treating Facebook the same as it does other apps and rather than imposing a new restriction, it is actually sticking to the guidelines that it originally set. 

Of course the official Facebook app isn’t the only route that Android offers to syncing. HTC has built an empire on HTC Sense with its deep integration of contacts in its People app and Motorola's Motoblur also draws on Facebook, but at the moment it appears only to be the Nexus S that is affected.

A new wave of "Facebook phones" are landing on Android, with HTC offering up the HTC Salsa and HTC ChaCha, and UK-based company INQ launching the INQ Cloud Touch and INQ Cloud Q.

The integration of Facebook contacts into your Google address book on the device is one of the more useful features that the Facebook app brings with it, meaning you can easily get pictures alongside your contacts and so on.

However, in a statement spotted by Techcrunch, Google is drawing a line under the “special-case handling” that Facebook contacts have enjoyed in the past.

The Nexus One appears to be unaffected by the update, as Facebook was a pre-installed app and the integration was an expected service. However, as it currently stands, this change looks to affect users of the Facebook app on new Google Android devices referred to as "future lead devices".

The statement detailing the specifics reads as follows:

“We believe it is very important that users are able to control their data. So in the over-the-air update for Nexus S, we have a small change to how Facebook contacts appear on the device. For Nexus S users who downloaded the Facebook app from Android Market, Facebook contacts will no longer appear to be integrated with the Android Contacts app. Since Facebook contacts cannot be exported from the device, the appearance of integration created a false sense of data portability.

“Facebook contact data will continue to appear within the Facebook app. Like all developers on Android, Facebook is free to use the Android contacts API to truly integrate contacts on the device, which would allow users to have more control over their data. We are removing the special-case handling of Facebook contacts on Nexus S and future lead devices.

“We continue to believe that reciprocity (the expectation that if information can be imported into a service it should be able to be exported) is an important step toward creating a world of true data liberation - and encourage other websites and app developers to allow users to export their contacts as well.”