Of all the recent technology news, the one that’s held most of my interest is the existence of the Facebook phone. Why? Because I’d been aware of a project to build a phone based on Facebook for quite some time, though I hadn’t been able to confirm it from multiple sources. Well, this morning, news has emerged that the company is building a phone in tandem with INQ Mobile.
Today, Bloomberg reports that the Facebook phone is going to be sold in Europe via Carphone Warehouse and other European carriers. It will be made by INQ, which is a relatively new handset maker that got its start making a Skype phone. In the U.S., INQ is said to be working with AT&T, where the phone is going to be sold under Ma Bell’s brand. Reports say the phone will be sold in two models: a touch screen model and a QWERTY model. We reported on INQ building touch-screen phones earlier in the year.
Now here’s what I know:
- The AT&T deal has is not yet final.
- The phones are not going to hit the market as quickly as Bloomberg is suggesting: the first half of 2011. The phones should have been ready by now for testing in order for that to happen, but they aren’t.
- The phone is going to show up first on Hutchinson’s 3/3G network.
- INQ/Facebook are likely to bundle Spotify, the red-hot digital music service in their phone, though that service might not be available in the U.S., since Spotify isn’t allowed to sell its services in the states.
- Spotify is likely to launch in the U.S. in December, which means it could also make an appearance on the Facebook phone on AT&T.
- Much of the work on the new experience is being done by INQ. (Thank God for that, because I think Facebook is severely challenged from the user experience perspective.)
Just to refresh your memory. INQ built the first Facebook phone and found success by simply integrating the Facebook address book into its device. In September 2009, INQ CEO Frank Meehan told us that his company would be building an Android phone. At that time, Meehan declined to comment on whether he would build a Spotify-focused phone. Since then, for European carriers, the red-hot Spotify has become one of the big revenue generators; consumers eager to get access to the Spotify service on their phone are signing up for carriers’ data plans.
Now let’s look at some of the facts: Facebook, Spotify, and INQ Mobile have a single common link: Chinese billionaire Li Ka-Shing who is an investor in all three companies. In addition, he owns Hutchinson, a wireless network operator that has 3G networks (branded 3) in 12 countries. INQ Mobile CEO Frank Meehan sits on the board of Spotify. With Google planning a mobile music offering and Apple already a strong presence in the digital media space, Facebook needs a music partner: Spotify.
Gimme Some Specs!
Apart from these new details, what will the new phone look like? On Sunday, Liz articulated some of the features the new phone should have in her piece. I’m extending what she said with additional information that came out in this wordy interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (but to read it yourself you will need a Klingon to human translation system) and details I have picked up from my own sources, here’s how I see the INQ-built Facebook phone experience:
- The Facebook layer, as Zuckerberg describes, will run on a thin, stripped-down version of Android. Though, if I’m Nokia, I would be making a beeline to Zuckerberg’s office right about now.
- What Facebook has to do is not build the OS, but instead build a user experience based on HTML5. WebOS did a good job of building a mobile experience based on web technologies.
- A consumer’s Facebook ID becomes more important than the phone number itself. Login with Facebook ID, and your social network auto-magically syncs up with the phone. (Android users have seen their Google phones do this since day one. Stacey finds it annoying.)
- Facebook becomes the address book or the contact list for the phone, giving Facebook users an option to call, IM, SMS, or mail their network via the data connection. Since Facebook already has our phone numbers, it can make it easy to call other cell phones or landlines. (Again, not a big deal for Android users who have this feature at their disposal.)
- As Clearspring CEO and one of our readers, Hooman Radfar, so aptly said, “Facebook is effectively a set of applications with an underlying common messaging and authentication infrastructure. So, by definition, Facebook also is a set of disparate applications (photos, inbox, chat) that is connected by a social layer.” That is why you will see Facebook apps will be separated into individual apps and subsumed into the phone experience.
- For instance, Facebook photos will communicate directly with the camera and become the repository for photos, with almost no difference in the cloud and the local photo storage. Take a picture and save it to Facebook.
- As Liz pointed out, Facebook can give phones presence-based intelligence based on location, scheduled events and meetings, and of course, the time of the day. You’ll see some of that in the new phone.
- The news feed, too, will become part of the mobile experience. I’d say it would be a more evolved experience compared to Moto BLUR and other such efforts.
- Using GPS chips, the phone will give you the ability to locate your friends. It can help get you discount coupons for local eateries and bars for example. That is why I think Facebook Places is an important initiative for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, and why it ended up acquiring the Hot Potato team.
Now many would be thinking that this phone effort is a reaction to company’s break-up with Apple. Not true. Facebook has been serious about mobile for a long time, and this effort to build a mobile social layer has been in the works for a while.
PS: For more discussion about the future of mobile, you should join me at GigaOM’s third annual Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Sept. 30.
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