Orange Will Bring Three New, Cheap 'Facebook Phones' To Europe And Africa

Remember the “Facebook phones” launched by HTC and INQ earlier this year that gave users a hotlink to the social network and integrated the service into other aspects of the device? Well, here come more: Orange today is announcing that it will start to sell three new phones across its footprint in Africa and Europe with “deep Facebook functionality”, all priced under €100 ($135).

The three devices, all developed by Alcatel, owe a hat-tip to HTC and INQ: like these two, Alcatel has used Facebook’s APIs to develop the devices, rather than direct investment from Facebook. Two of the devices, the 813F and 585F, are built on the company’s own proprietary OS, while the third, the 908F, is a smartphone built on Android. All will hit the market in Q4 (early next year).

All three devices feature a dedicated “F” key, as well as Facebook integration in other features: for example, users can post photos from the phones’ cameras directly to their Facebook pages, and a user’s Facebook contacts are automatically integrated with the phone’s contact book.

The move to offer cheap phones with functionality like social network integration is the latest sign of how carriers (and handset makers) are looking to target the next tier of users with “smart” mobile devices.

Yesterday a report from Gartner noted that smartphone growth had all but “stalled” in mature markets. But even in those markets, the tendency is to look for cheaper devices: on Monday, NPD noted that the majority of smartphones being sold today in the U.S. are actually under the $200-mark.

Following and addressing this trend is particularly important for an operator like Orange, which is owned by France Telecom: although the carrier has a substantial business in Western European markets like the UK and France, its footprint goes way beyond that to emerging markets in Eastern Europe (such as Romania) and several countries in the Middle East and Africa.

Making its APIs available to mobile phone makers has been a brilliant move by Facebook: it’s given the company the ability to move much faster into mobile than it might have otherwise done on its own steam.

While giving over the development work to others may mean that Facebook gets cut out of the revenue equation for handset sales and recurring service revenues, it is creating yet more links to yet more users, which remains the company’s main goal for services like advertising and paid content.

Facebook already counts mobile as one of the most important access routes into its network — its most recent stats are that 350 million of its 800 million users access the network via mobile, and it works with some 475 million operators to enable Facebook services — and phones like Alcatel’s are serving to make that channel even bigger.

But while Facebook has a huge number of users of its mobile apps and millions upload to their accounts via mobile devices, there have been lingering questions over how well these “Facebook phones” actually sell.

Last year, it was reported that the HTC Status, one of the first Facebook integrated devices, was not selling all that well in the U.S. No confirmation from either AT&T (NYSE: T) (who carries the device) or HTC on whether that was true, but it could be that such Facebook phones are more likely to sell better at the cheaper price points that Alcatel and Orange are aiming for.