Despite denials, Facebook phone rumors back with a vengeance

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Days after Facebook denied multiple reports stating it is at work on its own branded smartphone to better compete with the likes of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google, Bloomberg is reporting the social networking kingpin is partnering with handset maker INQ Mobile on a pair of Android-based phones slated to reach consumers in 2011. Citing three sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg states that while the INQ smartphones will emphasize social media features, Facebook hasn't yet decided whether the devices will carry its brand--one device is expected to feature both a touchscreen and Qwerty keyboard, while the other will only offer a touchscreen, evoking Apple's iPhone. Sources indicate AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) is a strong contender to offer the phones in the U.S. after they roll out in Europe in the first half of next year--however, Bloomberg states AT&T is still mulling its options and has not yet signed a deal.

Earlier this week, Facebook stated it is not building its own smartphone. "Our approach has always been to make phones and apps more social," a Facebook spokesperson said in email. "Current projects include everything from an HTML5 version of the site to apps on major platforms to full Connect support with SDKs to deeper integrations with some manufacturers. Our view is that almost all experiences would be better if they were social, so integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems is a good way to enable this... The bottom line is that whenever we work on a deep integration, people want to call it a ‘Facebook Phone' because that's such an attractive soundbite, but building phones is just not what we do."

Facebook declined to comment on the Bloomberg report, but confirmed it continues to work with INQ. In late 2008, British mobile operator 3 introduced INQ's so-called "Facebook phone," a.k.a. the INQ1, which integrates social networking information and status updates in its contact list. "We've been working with INQ for a couple of years now to help them build a deeply integrated Facebook experience on their devices," Facebook said in an emailed statement. "While we can't speak for their future product development plans, we can say that our view is that almost all experiences would be better if they were social."

In an interview with TechCrunch, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg also denies the company is building its own mobile operating system. "Our strategy is very horizontal," Zuckerberg said. "We're trying to build a social layer for everything. Basically we're trying to make it so that every app everywhere can be social whether it's on the web, or mobile, or other devices. So inherently our whole approach has to be a breadth-first approach rather than a depth-first one. And we work on all of these different things at the same time."

Facebook is the most popular application across most operating systems, according to recent Nielsen Company research: Fifty percent of iOS users have accessed the Facebook app within the last 30 days, compared to 45 percent of BlackBerry users and 32 percent of Windows Mobile users. In addition, Facebook is the second most popular app among Android users (45 percent)--only Google Maps ranks higher, and just barely (46 percent).

For more on the Facebook/INQ phone rumors:
- read this Bloomberg report

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