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Summary:

Half of Orange’s customers still haven’t found smartphone religion, but the carrier thinks it has found a new way of converting them. By offering low-priced Android phones designed around Facebook’s social media functions — and cheap data plans to boot — Orange hopes to lure them in.

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Updated: Orange is launching three new low-priced Android smartphones for people who live for Facebook in an attempt to lure more of its global customer base into the smartphone fold. Roughly 50 percent of Orange’s European and African customers have smartphones today, but the operator thinks it can boost that number by another 10 or 15 percent if it provides not only inexpensive devices and data plans but also cuts through the application clutter of the typical Android smartphone, focusing on social media applications that its less technically savvy customers are already well familiar with.

“There are over 400,000 apps in Android market, which is mind boggling,” Orange Group Devices vice president Patrick Remy said in an interview today. “We believe that there is a certain point where that level of choice will become a bit too much for our customers, that they’ll become a bit lost with that level of complexity.”

Orange polled its customers over what mobile data features would coax them into buying a smartphone. “One name kept coming back on a consistent basis,” Remy said. Several iterations of the Facebook phone have emerged from companies like HTC and INQ, but Orange opted to work with directly with Facebook and TCL, which makes handsets via license under the Alcatel Brand, to create its own line of devices. Remy said Orange wanted to make the phone Facebook-centric, but not Facebook exclusive. By allowing customers to utilize the fill capabilities of the Android platform, they would then gravitate to other applications and platforms.

But Orange is doing plenty to keep Facebookers happy. The phones are designed to make the device almost an extension of a customers Facebook account. Facebook birthdays are automatically loaded into the Calendar client, contacts are synched with Facebook friends and photos automatically populate the phones’ photo albums. A physical Facebook key allows performs a variety of functions depending on what the customer is doing on screen. If the customer is surfing the Web, a press of the Facebook button automatically loads a link. If pressed in the camera mode, the photo is posted as an update, and so forth. Many of the features are similar to those designed into the HTC Status used on AT&T’s network.

Update: Orange has been selling cheaper Android devices with low-cost plans for more than a year and has already seen results: 10% to 15% of all smartphones sold are in what Orange calls its “affordable” portfolio. With the introduction of these new Facebook-centric phones,  Orange hopes to push that number up to 20%

It’s first device is the Orange Vancouver (Orange has a thing for phones with city monikers like Boston and Monte Carlo), which will launch in Romania with a price tag of 100 Euros (USD $135) with 9 Euro monthly plan, including 50 660 minutes of voice, 200 SMS and 60 MB of 3G data. Facebook usage is excepted from the data limited, leaving social networks to update their statuses, send messages and upload and download photos to their hearts’ content. Orange plans to launch two other Android Facebook phones at even lower price points (though without 3G) will begin offering them in all of its markets from continental Europe to sub-Saharan Africa through 2012.

Unlimited Facebook access won’t be available in every market. So far, Orange is only planning to make that a basic feature in Tunisia and Romania, though in other countries customers can subscribe to special unlimited social networking plans. The idea is to make customers feel comfortable with data by not metering their data usage on their favorite application, Remy said.

It sounds simple enough, but customers might find themselves confused as to what exactly counts as Facebook and what doesn’t it. A link update, for instance, is no longer under the Facebook umbrella once a customer clicks on it and exits to the browser. A YouTube video embedded in friend stream could be particular problematic. Opening the video means opening YouTube’s Android app or website, and nothing can drain a 60 MB plan faster than streaming video.

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