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Facebook phone rears up again

But what does it mean?

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Bloomberg has found three people supporting claims that Facebook plans to launch a branded phone next year, though the motivation behind such a move remains a mystery.

It's not the first time the Facebook Phone has been rumoured, but such a phone has also been launched at least once when Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg heavily endorsed the INQ1 as the ideal phone for Facebook users. Given how good the INQ phones and software solutions are it's hard to see how much more integration Facebook can offer over existing handsets.

Bloomberg reckons a Facebook handset will be launched in April next next year, based on the Android platform and becoming operator branded (by AT&T) for a US launch in the second half of 2011. All of this may well be true, but none of it means that Facebook is planning to launch its own mobile telephone.

INQ already makes cheap handsets with built-in Facebook integration and shares an investor with the social network. The company is almost certainly working on an Android handset or two - it has no attachment to any other OS and hasn't launched a handset for year or so. INQ would very sensibly be working closely with Facebook to ensure a good level of integration, just as it's no doubt working with Twitter and Google to ensure their respective services are suitably supported.

INQ already synchronises one's Facebook contacts into the address book, but one can imagine greater use of presence information (indicating if contacts are logged on, and/or willing to chat, from within the contact list). Checking in with Facebook Places should become possible with a single tap too, but that's going to be true on all platforms very soon. It's harder to imagine INQ agreeing to drop support for competing services, or offering to display advertisements outside a specific Facebook application.

The company might, however, agree to put a Facebook sticker on the front, as it has done with Skype in the past. One shouldn't underestimate the value of a sticker: AT&T could easily launch an INQ handset with a Facebook logo on the front, just as 3 did in the UK with a Skype logo on an INQ phone. The Facebook brand would sell well to those who want to be socially connected, but don't want a smartphone. We're not convinced that qualifies as a "Facebook phone", but it does explain the media interest.

And the media, particularly in the US, would really like to see Facebook launching a phone. From outside the industry it seems to make sense, with Facebook mopping up those feature-phone users who haven't bought an iPhone and US brands reaching their naturally-dominant position. But reality is, unfortunately, rather less tidy.

Facebook certainly has staff working with handset manufacturers, and specifically with INQ, to better integrate the social network with the handset. Facebook would certainly like to see adverts presented to mobile users, but no manufacturer is going to allow that outside a Facebook app - at least not yet. Next year INQ will certainly launch some handsets with excellent Facebook integration, and probably based on Android. There might even be one with a Facebook sticker on the front - but whether that qualifies as a "Facebook phone" we'll leave open to debate. ®

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