How Face(.com) Recognition Could Fit Into Facebook Mobile

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Face.com’s CEO has shrugged off rumors that it is being acquired by Facebook for up to $100 million when we asked. But the addition of its facial recognition tech to Facebook’s mobile apps could make sure friend tagging continues as the social network’s user base shifts away from desktops.

In fact, about 45% of users of Face.com’s app KLIK end up sharing their photos on Facebook, which shows how popular mobile facial recognition could be.

For the record, Face.com people are keeping their cards close to their chest. Face.com’s CEO Gil Hirsch flatly tells TechCrunch: “We have nothing new to announce or share at this time.”

But even while Facebook has been pushing a lot of fancy new enhancements to its mobile offerings (its Camera mobile app being the most recent) there are still a surprising number of features that have yet to be covered by the company.

So, perhaps because nature abhors a vacuum, we’re now getting a full whack of reports of what the company might buy or launch to make up for that, including today’s Face.com news that Facebook is looking to buy mobile/PC browser company Opera and hiring ex-Apple hardware engineers to work on its own phone. (Btw Opera is also giving a similarly no-news line: “Everything I’ve read has been news to me,” one Opera person told me.)

We may just, quite possibly, be in the middle of a Facebook news bubble and that half of what we are reading about Facebook and mobile may never come to pass — or could take ages to come to fruition: Buffy the Android slayer is reportedly still six to 12 months away going by the timing in the AllThingsD post from November. And this is not the first time we’ve heard that Face.com is in the Facebook acquisition line.

But, if you swallow that large grain of salt, there is a huge amount of sense in the social network looking at beefing up its mobile arsenal with companies like these, which offer features that Facebook currently does not, and therefore offer the promise of getting mobile users to spend more time on the social network — something that is a concern for the company.

At the moment, Facebook’s popular photo tag suggestion feature does not work from mobile, only on web uploads on PCs; on mobile, users can tag by starting to type a name for tagging options to appear, a spokesperson notes to us.

Face.com meanwhile offers facial-recognition software both for PC-based and mobile usage, with the key being that it covers mobile.

Face.com has its own iPhone mobile app, KLIK, beta-launched in January, and then rolled out as a 1.0 version in the app store earlier this month, which shows off the full range of its features.

These include facial recognition, facial-friendly photo filters and a location-based photo network — all services you could see sitting naturally in Facebook’s existing services.

Face.com tells us that Klik had over 100,000 downloads of the app in the first three days — signs of stickiness and popularity.

Equally interesting, Face.com also offers an API to integrate its technology into other apps. (One company suggested for an integration: Path.)

The API functionality could come in handy as Facebook looks at more ways of extending its functionality and touchpoints outside of its walled garden, especially since an Android version is likely to come soon from Face.com.

Opera, last week’s acquisition rumor, offers a similar promise of covering new ground for Facebook.

In its case it’s about a web browser — which, as others have reported, would be an essential feature if Facebook were to launch its own mobile platform.

That would be to compete against the likes of Android from Google and iOS from Apple in smartphones. But having web browsing capabilities could also help Facebook make more of a push in the lower-end feature phone space — an area where it has already made advances with services like Facebook Zero and its acquisition of Snaptu to improve the feature phone experience to target users in developing markets.

Coincidentally, Opera pushed itself as a “social mobile” company in February, when it launched the Opera Mini Next browser, offering “Smart Page” social media sharing features specifically for feature phone users.

Opera says it has some 200 million users of its browsers today, but if its social functionality that Facebook is after, there may be others worth watching, too. For example, the social mobile browser company Rockmelt, which has raised nearly $40 million from Andreessen-Horowitz, Accel, Khosla Ventures and others, currently offers an iOS app.

In the meantime, Opera has seen a little lift in its fortunes since the rumors broke last week: today its share price appears to have been its highest in a year, rising by 24.4 percent and closing at €5.70 a share.

[Additional reporting by Josh Constine]