Phones with Facebook buttons: too friendly?

HTC's announcement of two smartphones linked closer than ever to Facebook will lead an industry trend, analysts say, but despite the social network's popularity most users will ultimately prefer handhelds without the special feature.

The Taiwan manufacturer's ChaCha and Salsa smartphones announced this week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona grabbed attention for their buttons that connect users directly to Facebook.

Users today can access Facebook's basic Web pages from any phone and post photos or comments from some. But buttons on the soon-to-be-released HTCs light up whenever a user's activity on the smartphone offers a chance to share content on Facebook. One press of the button updates the user's Facebook status, uploads a photo, shares a website or posts music currently playing on the phone, the manufacturer said in a statement.

British phone maker INQ is coming out with a pair of Android devices, the Cloud Touch and Cloud Q, with dedicated Facebook buttons. Facebook is not the only social network to expand to mobile phones. A handset already available in China links to the country's widespread QQ Internet chat service. BlackBerry Messenger is a hit with teens.

More is all but certain to come as Facebook says hundreds of millions of people access the free social networking service from mobile phones.

"HTC's socially oriented ChaCha and Salsa smartphones certainly raise the bar in terms of mobile implementations of Facebook," said Nick Dillon, an analyst with Ovum in London. "This deeper level of integration could make the mobile experience of Facebook more compelling than other mobile versions of the application and, potentially, even more so than the full web version."

Although there is no official Facebook phone, the social media giant worked with HTC and INQ on their models. Facebook also develops applications for several smartphone platforms.

"We want to make sure that everyone has a great experience regardless of the mobile device they choose to use," Charles Wu, a Facebook engineer working on mobile applications, wrote recently on a company blog. "To achieve this, we've been working with several application developers, operators, and hardware manufacturers from the mobile industry."

Manufacturers may also see the HTC models as "the beginning of a trend toward a directed mobile Internet experience rather than a general mobile Internet experience," said David Wolf [cq], CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a technology consultancy in Beijing.

But analysts see limits. Some users are happy using Facebook via the basic Web browsers on existing phones. Most people looking to upgrade would rather buy new smartphones that can reach Facebook via mobile Web browsers but not be bothered every time friends update Facebook status, analysts speculate.

"It could become an irritant," Wolf said. "There's a class of people who, for lack of a better word, 'live' on Facebook. If you use Facebook exclusively, then there might be a call for (dedicated phones), but it's a minority, a small percentage of people who use mobile phones."

Sean Tao, 39, a Taipei white-collar worker, is one of those.

"I don't think I will buy a (phone for) Facebook since all the rest of the phones can give me pretty much the same," he said. "I think Facebook is somewhat losing popularity now, since my Facebook and some others are extremely quiet. I find myself replying less and less to other people's status, and it's a sure giveaway that I am not working, so I am not interested."

The most successful models will merge Facebook buttons or applications with other popular Internet features, said Joey Yen, market analyst with IDC in Taipei. "Facebook has a very open attitude, so providers are trying different models," Yen added.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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