Facebook isn’t making its own phone, but it’s pre-loading its software into millions of devices

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Facebook wants to ensure that billions of people in emerging markets have access to its mobile apps when they buy their first phones. The social networking giant found an easy solution to that problem: Facebook is working with Chinese chipmaker Spreadtrum to embed its software directly into the guts of inexpensive smartphones.

Before you get too excited, Spreadtrum isn’t building the elusive Facebook Phone. Instead, it’s guaranteeing that millions of new phones sold into emerging markets will be “Facebook ready.”

Spreadtrum is pre-installing Facebook’s application software in its all-in-one Android smartphone platform – basically a smartphone-in-a-box containing the baseband and applications process, protocol stack, operating system and reference design. Spreadtrum’s customers — handset makers — can then use that platform to quickly produce inexpensive smartphones quickly and with minimal engineering and design investment.

Technically any Android phone user could simply download the Facebook app from Google Play (Facebook is often pre-installed on smartphones, in fact) but the Spreadtrum agreement ensures the software will be optimized for even the lowest end smartphones expected to make their way into countries like India. Facebook won’t have to deal with OS fragmentation on those devices, or worry about whether their hardware is capable of supporting its app’s features. Spreadtrum will work with Facebook to test app updates and new features to ensure they’ll work across the phones already in the market.

Also, having your app icon sitting front and center on a new phone’s home screen can’t hurt when introducing yourself to a new country.

“Working with Spreadtrum will extend Facebook’s reach in emerging markets, leveraging the rapid shift from feature phones to smartphones that is now taking place globally,” Facebook VP of mobile partnerships and corporate partnerships Vaughan Smith said in a statement.

Spreadtrum has already begun shipping its smartphone platform to Chinese handset vendors, building off the company’s expertise in the TD-SCDMA radio technologies unique to Chinese operators, but Facebook is officially banned in that country. On Wednesday, Spreadtrum revealed Facebook has given it and its handset partners permission to distribute its software outside of the Chinese market, opening up the possibility of millions of new Facebook-optimized devices in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa and India. Spreadtrum said it expects to ship 80 million to 100 million of those chipsets in 2013 alone.

Clarification: An early version of this post stated that Spreadtrum’s smartphone platform was shipping in China. While true, Facebook’s software is not included in any Spreadtrum-powered phone being sold in China itself due to a government ban. Rather phones manufactured in China but exported to overseas markets will carry the Facebook software.

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