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India gets any-phone mobile Facebook for a penny a day

GSM text-menu tech takes the fight downstairs to Orkut

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For a rupee a day Indians can now get onto Facebook, assuming all their mates aren't on Google's Orkut network and they don't mind missing all the graphics.

The new service comes from Bharti Airtel and uses the USSD service, a little-known part of the GSM standard which provides text-menu interactivity more akin to Gopher than the web. But USSD is supported on all GSM handsets, which means Bharti Airtel can offer Facebook on any mobile phone for a rupee a day (a bit more than 1 UK penny or two US cents).

Interactivity is limited to status updates, "friend" requests and posting (text) on walls. The user is expected to have access to a PC for everything else, but Bharti Airtel does provide mobile access to the service, which is one in the eye for Google, whose Orkut network still dominates social networking in the subcontinent.

Facebook has around 25 million users in India, compared to Orkut's 40 million or so. Worldwide Facebook dominates, with five times the total number of users, and Zuckerberg's empire hasn't been slow to take advantage of that position.

It's the markets where cheaper devices dominate where Facebook doesn't: India, Brazil and China (though the latter is mainly down to its government blocking the Facebook site). Many people in those countries have the latest smartphones and desktop computers, but more of them do not. If Facebook can get a foothold into the technically-less-equipped demographic it could be very important in the upcoming fights with Google, Tencent (owners of QQ) or anyone else.

We've seen a Facebook client squeezed onto a SIM card, and now carried over USSD, now the question becomes how quickly the competition can adopt similar strategies – or if Facebook can work its way up the demographic ladder to supplant them. ®

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