Facebook ‘Phones’ From INQ And HTC: This Could Be Just The First Step

So INQ and HTC are revving up to release the first “Facebook phones”? Not exactly, but it’s a crucial step for Facebook in testing the waters for an even deeper plunge into mobile.

In the week leading up to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, INQ has formally unveiled two new Android-based devices that will be putting Facebook front and center.

The INQ Cloud Touch and INQ Cloud Q are using Facebook’s new set of APIs to effectively take over the homescreen on the devices. INQ says that it is the first device maker to unveil “Facebook” devices, but that title may turn out to be short-lived. HTC is also reportedly planning to release a phone using those APIs next week in Barcelona.

INQ is using the APIs to effectively create a take-over of phone’s home screen, and turn it into a unifed feed of the various services that Facebook has: status updates; links to photos, videos and web pages; Facebook Chat; Facebook Messages. More interestingly — and something that really will threaten other companies like Foursquare if this really catches on — the homepage on the new devices will also integrate services like Facebook Places and Events. (Deals are not mentioned in the news release but these will probably come along too, if they’re not there already.)

Facebook is not the only non-mobile brand that will feature on these new devices: one interesting variation is that INQ has replaced the native Android music player with Spotify, the cloud-based music service — which could either be a sign that Spotify is finally going to be available in markets outside of Europe; or that users outside of European markets will find an instant frustration when they try to launch the music player.

The Facebook phone is not the first time that INQ has made a bold integration of a non-mobile brand into a mobile handset: the company several years ago launched a “Skype phone”, the first handset to make the VoIP service into an instantly usable application, by way of a physical key on the device. The phones, understandably at the time, didn’t get much traction with any operator other than Three (Hutchison Whampoa owns both INQ and Three), which used it as part of a service launch offering users free Skype usage as part of their plans.

Is this a sign that Facebook will do even more in mobile, perhaps launching its own OS, or even making its own branded devices? Maybe that is a leap, but don’t forget that Google (NSDQ: GOOG) also started out this way, with the Web-n-Walk device that it put out with T-Mobile back in 2005.

Web-n-Walk was Google’s earliest mobile project, when it was still saying that it didn’t want to make its own mobile device, just simply a way of making it easier for users to get to Google’s web-based search page on mobile handsets. (How much has Google’s tune changed.) It was a useful way of testing out the waters at the time — both in terms of working with operators and handset makers, and in terms of what kind of appetite the public had for Google on mobile — just as this appears to be with Facebook.

Times have moved on, of course, and people are doing a lot more with mobiles than they did in 2005. Facebook has already established a big presence on mobile before these two phones have even hit the market: with smartphone apps, and two separate ways for feature phone users to access its service, Facebook Zero and the Facebook client for feature phones launched last month.

Operators, too, have seen the value of Facebook and have done things like bundle Facebook access with data plans, as a way of upselling users to higher-value tariffs. This latest step of integrating even closer, through APIs, is another step in the same direction, and builds on those releationships it already has with operators and OS platform providers.

Where are the Facebook phones now? Past INQ devices have launched first with mobile operator Three (Hutchison Whampoa owns both companies). But it looks like INQ is trying to break out of that and go a little larger this time around. So far, the company has announced distribution deals with Carphone Warehouse and Best Buy in the UK, and a spokesperson for INQ told mocoNews that the devices will be with “all major operators” with the first countries for rollout scheduled to be in the U.S., UK, Italy, Australia, Singapore and Canada. (Three’s footprint covers the UK, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, Australia and Indonesia.)