Facebook phone plans: forked Android or HTC handset?

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Facebook to unveil its "new home on Android", which could be anything from a forked version of Android to an HTC handset

Facebook is expected to unveil its mobile plans on Thursday, with a promise to reveal its "new home on Android".

That has many pundits suggesting the launch will be a flavour of Google’s operating system designed around Facebook - similar to Amazon's fork of the OS for its Kindle Fire tablets.

However, it could be little more than a Facebook homescreen for Android devices, or better Facebook integration into HTC's Sense skin.

Rumours also abound of a joint hardware venture with HTC, which Facebook has previously worked with on the ChaCha and Salsa "Facebook phones", albeit with unsuccessful results.

Forked Facebook

According to an ‘.APK teardown’ by Android Police, the new software was seen running on an HTC device code-named "Myst", which has similar specifications to a model that has previously been linked with being a "Facebook phone". The device in question is a mid-range handset, with a dual-core processor and 720p screen.

9to5Google quoted its own sources as saying that the new venture would be more of a lifestyle brand, with an advertising campaign focusing on users rather than any specific devices.

That site also said that the operating system will be a "forked" version of Android, with Facebook deeply integrated into the whole user experience.

Mobile muscle

CCS Insights analyst Geoff Blaber stressed that while he believes the social network won’t release a branded phone, flexing its muscles in the mobile sector may just be the ticket for the company, whose shares have been on the decline since its IPO last year.

"Facebook needs to strengthen its place on mobile and get more hooks into the platform and into third party software," Blaber said. "It's got a track record of creating strategic partnerships with manufacturers and operators, so this may well be happening."

But it’ll have to be something more than the run-of-the-mill Facebook app, he said. "For many phone users it’s application number one; everyone expects Facebook to be there," he said. "So if it's going to market something like this, it’ll have to offer something new."

Dumb terminals

The new push for mobile dominance signifies a tipping point in how Facebook is used on phones, according to analysts Strand Consult.

"Not only are OTT [over-the-top] companies such as Facebook rendering mobile operators into dumb pipes, but they are making all smartphones into dumb terminals. If all users want is Facebook, then there are few ways that operators and phone manufacturers can differentiate with services or hardware."

Mobile advertising revenue currently makes up 23% of Facebook’s $1.33 billion quarterly advertising income, with more than half of its 1 billion users accessing Facebook on their mobile devices.

Facebook is also increasing the reach of its mobile voice calls functionality, most recently with UK iOS customers being allowed to make free calls over Wi-Fi and mobile data networks.

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