Facebook SIMs, HTC/INQ Phones — Facebook's Phone Project Lingers, But It's None Of Those

Facebook wants to be everywhere. They’ve made this very clear. They want to be on your desktop, on your laptop, on your smartphone, on your tablet, and on your dumbphone. The latter, they directly addressed today with a new SIM card made in conjunction with Gemalto which magically gives basically every dumbphone — aka “feature phone” — a simple entry point to use the social network: SMS. It’s a great idea, and very cool for emerging markets. In fact, you could make a case for it sort of being a “Facebook Phone”. But it’s obviously not the mythical one which Facebook absolutely wants you to believe doesn’t exist.

Nor are the phones that HTC may be releasing tomorrow at Mobile World Congress. (Update: Yep.) PocketNow was apparently able to snag some images of these Android-powered HTC devices that carry a special Facebook button at the bottom. Again, potentially cool and useful, but not the Facebook Phone. And that INQ-built Facebook phone? Also cool, but also not the Facebook Phone.

Now, the only thing we know for absolute certain is that Facebook hates talking about the concept of a “Facebook Phone”. We’ve had this argument with them in the past. They seem to think that a Facebook Phone with a capital “P” would only be a device with both hardware and software designed and developed by them. Or, at the very least, an OS written by them from the ground up. They’ve stated time and time again that they’re not working on such a project. At least not yet. And we buy that. What we don’t buy is that they don’t have some sort of project to take Google’s open source Android OS and inject it with Facebook DNA. That’s what we believe the Facebook Phone is going to be. And from what we’re hearing, it’s still coming.

Ever since we wrote the first Facebook Phone story last September, whispers have not stopped about what Facebook is doing. In particular, we had heard that two key employees, Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos, were working on the project. But we’ve since heard that Facebook’s head of mobile, Erick Tseng, has taken command of the project. And that yes, it continues to be a project to customize Android to make it, and the apps that run on it, more social at their cores. “Instant personalization” and all that. You may remember Tseng as the senior Android manager who jumped over to Facebook last May.

We’re also hearing that Tseng is pushing a team within Facebook, perhaps Platmobile, to be ready to have something to show off at Facebook’s f8 conference later this year. Judging from previous years, this should take place in April. You may recall that the Platmobile team is the one that was hard at work on eliminating the need for mobile password entry. Clearly, any Android Facebook Phone project would feature this as a hallmark.

You may recall the rumors that Facebook was working with Apple to bring this deep level of social to the iPhone last year. That project was apparently very real and may have been codenamed “Spork”. But apparently, that project was scrapped — perhaps after Facebook and Apple could not come to an agreement on terms for such features. Whatever the reason, work began on the Android project shortly thereafter (which was around the time we first heard about it).

So, Facebook apparently continues to not work on a phone in the same way that Google was not working on a phone for all those years. Will we see the fruits of such non-labor at f8 this year? Perhaps. Will it be a physical phone? Unlikely. A totally new OS made by Facebook? Probably not. But instead, we may see a version of Android with very deep Facebook integration. One that phone-makers would be welcome to use. A Trojan Horse for Facebook to make smartphones truly social.