INQ Facebook phone launches
Today sees the launch of the INQ Cloud Touch, the first phone to offer deep integration with Facebook
First the social network Facebook was a website for Harvard students. Then it became a vast global community with 500m members.
Today it makes another leap towards ubiquity as phones begin to appear that offer not so much a Facebook app or Facebook features, but rather a way for users to run almost every aspect of their lives through the website’s services.
Facebook has consistently denied that it was making a phone – Google and Apple may have their models, the social network said, but we don’t think a phone is the way forward.
Today, however, the first of at least two manufacturers that have been working closely with Facebook broke cover: there is not a Facebook phone, but there are Facebook phones.
It would be easy to say that this is just another product launch, coming ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade fair in Barcelona next week.
In fact, however, this news taps in to a trend: Facebook messages and instant online chat facilities are all the text communication a whole generation now uses; Facebook Events replace what the relatively elderly call a diary; ‘check-ins’ are on their way to replacing discount vouchers; an address book is now called a ‘friend list’.
Henri Moissinac, Facebook’s Head of Mobile Business, says “We want to have every user in every market using Facebook– we’re investing in smartphones and at the same time as in mass market phones because we believe with great features and great integrations, every phone can become sociable.”
For consumers, that means offering, he says, “Many different form factors, many different experiences” in collaboration with any manufacturer who wants to use their software.
As Moissinac puts it, however, “most of our work is about software”. He talks about providing data that can be used in every aspect of a mobile phone, rather than building a phone itself. The aim is to provide an elegant experience, not beautiful hardware.
The first publicly revealed handset is made by INQ (pronounced ‘ink’). This small company aims firmly at a youthful demographic, and so its new phones’ main screen looks busy, with ‘status updates’ easily accessible.
It’s as easy to write a message on somebody’s publicly visible ‘Facebook Wall’ as it is to send them a text message. The effect is to make Facebook a medium for communication, like email, rather than a platform in itself.
So long as the company can continue to slip ads in or get you to sign up to its deals, then there is not likely to be a problem with that arrangement.
Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, says that “Facebook is the hottest app on mobile right now. With over 250 million people regularly accessing Facebook on their mobiles all the big manufacturers are keen to grab onto Facebook's coat tails to make their phones as appealing to consumers as possible.”
INQ’s two models – the Cloud Touch and the Cloud Q, with touchscreen and keyboard respectively – offer “Facebook in their DNA”, according to the company’s co-founder Ken Johnstone.
“We didn’t put a Facebook button on because our users don’t think ‘I’m going to look at Facebook’. It was important that it’s an authentic, comprehensive Facebook experience”.
The Facebook button, however, remains something of a ‘marketing holy grail’ according to a number of analysts over the years.
At every press conference the firm has held for the past year, its executives have been asked if they’re making their own phone with just such a button, and they’re usually asked if they’re making it in collaboration with mobile trendsetter HTC.
According to Wood, “Facebook wants to get on as many phones as possible and assert its dominant position. Once it has done that I predict it might then consider whether a "Facebook phone" is the right direction to go in.
"Until then you'll see a variety of phone makers creating Facebook phone-like experiences, in some cases endorsed by Facebook from the perspective of using its logo and services.”
HTC was the first firm to make a phone with Google, the Nexus One, and it has subsequently made some of the best new phones with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 Platform.
For it to be a leader in a new generation of mobile phones built around social networking is to be expected.
Widespread web rumours suggest that HTC will bring out at least one Facebook-phone, and Facebook itself essentially confirmed its existence late in January: “This is really just another example of a manufacturer who has taken our public [application programing interfaces] (APIs) and integrated them into their device in an interesting way," said Dan Rose, head of business development at Facebook.
Mr Rose went on, however, “The rumours around there being something more to this HTC device are overblown," Rose told journalists at a company event in London. Asked whether the device would be Facebook-branded, he answered: "No."
Indeed, Facebook consciously allows all software developers to take Facebook and do things with it that the company itself has neither inclination nor time.
Indeed, the trend perhaps is both for Facebook integration, but also for innovation in mobile phones now to be far more about software than it is about hardware.
Not all manufacturers, for instance, are yet integrating the ‘Near Field Communications’ technology that is, according to some, going to replace credit cards in the near future.
With all that software innovation, however, comes a significant risk: Eric Schmidt told the Sunday Telegraph this weekend that people who use Facebook also use Google more.
The idea that using the net creates a virtuous circle for web companies is true for now: but if it’s Facebook who make most of what you use on a phone powered by Google software, then one thing seems certain: a battle for the way your mobile phone works is imminent. The announcements at Barcelona next week will be just the first skirmishes.