After years of quashing rumors that it is producing its own mobile phone, social network giant Facebook on Thursday announced that it is doing just that -- and more.
The HTC First will live up to its name as the pioneer device to come with Facebook's new Home system of applications pre-installed.
Home is custom-made for Facebook addicts who don't want to have to tap a mobile app to get started sharing status updates, birthdays and photos with their friends. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted at the launch, it allows you to share with Facebook connections from the moment you turn on your phone.
The First is available for $99.99 with a two-year contract from AT&T beginning April 12, with pre-orders available now via a Facebook link to AT&T. The 4G LTE-equipped First is powered by Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), has a 4.3-inch display and packs a 1.4-gigahertz Qualcomm dual-core processor.
Also on April 12, Home will be available for download, but only for phones powered by Google's Android operating system. The devices that will initially support Home all run Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean: the HTC One X, HTC One X plus, Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2, as well as the First.
The Home suite includes the apps Cover Feed, Notifications, Chat Heads, App Launcher and Instagram, and are designed to make Facebook and the home screen of a smartphone essentially one and the same.
"The Home Screen is really the soul of your phone," Zuckerberg said. "You look at it about 100 times a day. It sets the tone for the whole experience."
Under pressure to bring in new revenue streams for investors, the company likely sees a chance for deeper engagement with its growing share of mobile users, with minimal investment and increased ad revenue as a result. While Facebook, which directly sells no physical products, had long been rumored to be toying with its own phone, Home essentially goes further by turning existing phones made by other people into Facebook phones.
"This is a good [opportunity] by Facebook to grow its tentacles deeper in mobile space using Google's own platform and reach," said Neil Shah, senior wireless analyst at Strategy Analytics.
"However, it's up to consumers in the end if they want to Facebookify their phone or tablet and want to tie into a complete Facebook experience," Shah told us. "Facebook Home could be a game changer for Facebook, especially if adopted well by avid Facebook and Android users. For Facebook it's a great opportunity to increase engagement with the platform, more direct eyeballs, and attract marketers for ads, which will translate to higher revenues, scale and profits."
But Shah said he is "not bullish" on optimized Facebook phones, since that has already been tried with HTC's ChaCha, released in June 2011 as a texting-oriented phone with deep Facebook integration.
What comes next, he added, is to see if other social media will play catch up.
"It will be interesting to see if Google comes up with 'Google+ Home' and forces it down Android users' throats to fend off Facebook," Shah said.