'Facebook phone' likely to put social network at front of Android

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By Rosa Golijan

"Come See Our New Home on Android," the invitation sent to members of the press on Thursday declared. Does this mean the long-rumored Facebook phone is about to become official? What is the social network's next move? And does it stand a chance?

Facebook is intending to introduce a modified version of Google's Android operating system, according to sourcing from TechCrunch's Josh Constine, the New York Times' Nick Bilton and Brian X. Chen, and the Wall Street Journal's Evelyn M. Rusli and Amir Efrati. This version of Android will put Facebook front and center and "will debut on a handset made by HTC, according to a Facebook employee and another person who were briefed on the announcement," Chen and Bilton explain.

"Imagine Facebook’s integration with iOS 6, but on steroids, and built by Facebook itself," Constine adds. "It could have a heavy reliance on Facebook’s native apps like Messenger, easy social sharing from anywhere on the phone, and more."

“It’s putting Facebook first,” a person familiar with the matter emphasized to Wall Street Journal reporters. But unlike competitors such as Amazon and Google, it is not putting Facebook itself into the hardware game.

"With Amazon, it's pretty clear," mobile industry consultant Chetan Sharma told NBC News. "They want to sell their content and services. They're building their own devices, which is different from what Facebook is doing."

However, the idea of a modified version of Android may be viewed as an act of hostility directed at Facebook's frenemy, Google.

"The reaction from Google will be interesting to see," Sharma pointed out. "There's obviously overlap ... It seems to Google that it's underpinning their Google+ efforts. Longer term, I don't see them letting it go and letting other people do their work."

But even if Google lets Facebook's plans fly, there are other issues to consider, Sharma says. "If it's just a phone that's going to be pushed by HTC, its chances are going to be limited," he explains. "[HTC] doesn't have the marketing powers." To truly stand a shot, Facebook needs to join hands with carriers.

Of course, some might wonder whether any carriers would be game. After all, Facebook's VoIP efforts and its baked-in Messenger service might conflict with carriers' business agendas, right?

Not necessarily so, says Sharma. "In certain markets [VoIP and Messenger] would be challenging," he elaborates. "In markets where unlimited voice and messaging is already bundled in … in those scenarios operators have less resistance to the idea. They already make money on voice and messaging and they'll also make money on the data used by Facebook."

Initial whispers don't suggest that "Facebook Home," as the social network's device/software combo is expected to be named, is going to be pitched by any carriers, so we'll have to see how things fare with merely HTC. (Of course, that's assuming all these rumors and reports pan out.)

Things will be official on Thursday, April 4, and we'll be in Menlo Park, Calif., to report live.

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