Mobile phone company 3 is hoping to capitalise on the success of Facebook with the release of a new handset in time for Christmas that integrates the social networking site with all the traditional functions of a mobile phone, such as contacts book and message inbox.
The INQ1 - pronounced "ink one" - is likely to be dubbed "the Facebook phone" as it puts users in touch with their social networking circle at the touch of a button. The phone, unveiled today and available in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong from next month, is aimed squarely at users who find "smartphones" such as the iPhone, Blackberry Storm and G1 too expensive, but still want to use social networking, e-mail and instant messaging as well as surf the mobile web.
The INQ1 will be free for anyone willing to sign up to an 18-month contract at just £15 a month. For that they will get unlimited Facebook and Skype calls, as well as access to Windows Live Messenger and up to 1GB a month of web access, plus unlimited texts, unlimited email, unlimited calls to other 3 customers and 75 minutes of calls to other networks a month. Paying £5 more a month brings the off-network calls to 200 a month. Pay as you go users can buy the phone for £79.99 and will need to spend at least £5 a month on internet access.
The iPhone, meanwhile, is free for £45 a month on an 18 month contract with O2 and starts at £349.99 for a pre-pay version. The G1, which includes Google's Android operating system, is £40 a month with T-Mobile, also on an 18 month contract. The Storm, meanwhile, is £35 a month with Vodafone but that contract is for two years.
The INQ1 is the first phone from INQ, the mobile device venture set up earlier in the year by 3's owner Hutchison Whampoa which also includes the team that helped create 3's Skypephone. INQ's chief executive Frank Meehan said the new device is designed to bring the mobile internet and especially mobile social networking, to a much wider audience.
"The 85% to 95% of the market that did not buy the iPhone and cannot afford an expensive smartphone has been frankly forgotten," he said. "The problem is we could not find anything under $500 that gave customers good access to the internet so we said 'stuff it we'll do it ourselves'."
INQ is understood to have looked at using Google's Android platform to power the device but the processing power needed made the chips that any device would have to include, prohibitively expensive. As a result the INQ has been built from the bottom up. It is, however, based on an open platform - for instance it supports Flash Lite - and the device can be updated 'over the air' meaning that if other sites such as Bebo wish to be integrated more fully into the device that can easily be done.
At present the phone also has one-touch access to music site Last.fm while sites such as YouTube and eBay can be accessed through the 3 mobile web portal. In future such sites could be added as "widgets" to the phones main menu in the same way as Facebook and MSN Messenger will be there at launch.
But it is the attraction of Facebook that has 3 most excited about the potential scale of the NIQ1's appeal. Since the start of the year global users of Facebook on mobile phones has ballooned from 5 million to 15 million as the company has added new features such as being able to comment on friend's status updates as well as update one's own status. The introduction of that function saw over a million mobile status comments created in the first 24 hours, according to Facebook.
There are currently two mobile Facebook sites. One, m.facebook.com, works on any mobile device that can access the internet, while x.facebook.com works on more powerful "smartphones". There are also downloadable applications - or widgets - which make Facebook far easier to use for specific devices such as the iPhone.
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