Facebook (Nasdaq: FB ) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been pretty clear on his mobile plans: Facebook is a mobile company, but the company doesn't make phones. And no, a Facebook button on the short-lived and forgettable HTC Status doesn't count.
That hasn't stopped the rumor mill from squeaking out rumors of a Facebook phone over the past couple of years. This summer, The New York Times raised that specter again, making fellow Fool Evan Niu wonder what such a beast would look like. The two leading smartphone platforms are out of the question for various reasons, Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows Phone software hasn't gained much of a foothold yet, and Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HPQ ) WebOS is an unproven commodity. Why would Facebook tie its mobile fortunes to any of these solutions?
This week, France Telecom (NYSE: FTE ) came up with an unexpected answer. What if every Android and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone could bypass traditional voice networks and make voice calls over Facebook's messaging services instead?
France Telecom's Orange network will launch exactly that in 2013. The so called Party Calls service will make its debut next summer, enabling voice and possible even video calls across high-speed cellular networks. This is similar to Apple's FaceTime, Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Google Talk, or Microsoft's Skype, except that Orange's solution sets up address books and connections based on Facebook data.
Separately, Orange also unveiled two more mobile communication apps at the same conference. LibOn is for "high-definition phone calls," already available as an iPhone app and rolling out to Android in early 2013. Joyn is a "rich communications suite" that integrates talk, video, chat, and sharing features -- but that one connects to regular phone numbers rather than Facebook contacts. It's already up and running in Spain and set to launch across Europe next year.
So France Telecom is hedging its bets. The Facebook service is just one part of a larger mobile chat assault. But for now, it's the closest we'll get to a true Facebook phone.
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