Facebook: Telecoms’ New Best Friend?

inq1facebookThe buzz at last week’s Mobile World Congress last week was palpable: social networks are hot.

As a sign of the times, INQ’s INQ1 phone, also known as the “Facebook phone,” took home the GSM Associations’s prestigious Best Mobile Handset or Device award, beating out several smartphones like the BlackBerry Storm, T-Mobile G1, Nokia E71, and LG KS360. The INQ1 is a mass market £80 (US$116) device with tight Facebook integration.

And this is just the beginning, according to INQ’s CEO.

“You’re going to see Facebook phones all over the place,” CEO Frank Meehan said.

Facebook: Telecoms’ New Best Friend?

According to Wireless Week, “Seemingly every handset vendor and operator is trying to get deals with Facebook and other social networks.”

Why? Social networking applications are increasingly driving the growth of the mobile internet audience – especially among females.

  • According to a November comScore report (note: the dateline on the article is actually incorrect), the European mobile social networking audience grew 152% from November 2007 to November 2008 to 12.1 million people. (The UK boasts the highest mobile social networking penetration rate, at 9%.) In addition, 33% of all mobile social networking users access social media sites exclusively.
  • In addition, comScore reports that of those users who access social networking sites exclusively, 48% of female. By contrast, women make up only 32% of those seeking other types of mobile Internet content.
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  • Worldwide, eMarketer says the number of mobile social networking users will grow to 243 million in 2009 from 147 million in 2008.
  • In the US, mobile social network usage tripled from September 2007 to October 2008, according to a report by The Kelsey Group and ConStat.
  • In the UK, Orange has seen the number of people accessing social networking sites nearly triple since introducing a new rate plan that offers unlimited access to social networking sites in July of last year. In addition, Orange says the average mobile social networking user accesses 260 mobile pages per month, about 10 times the internet usage of the average customer. Vodafone also recently started allowing unlimited Facebook access to customers.

As a result, handset manufacturers and operators are racing to bring phones to market built from the ground up around services like Facebook and MySpace. Nevertheless, some in the industry are still not pleased with the pace of progress.

“I don’t know why they are moving so slow,” said Ken Johnstone, products and design director at INQ Mobile, which worked on the INQ1 for over two years. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Facebook vs. MySpace: The Mobile Battle

Facebook has built a large lead in worldwide audience – it topped MySpace 220 million to 125 million uniques in December, according to comScore – but MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe gave the morning keynote at the Mobile World Congress last week, touting mobile’s importance to the future of both audience and revenue growth for MySpace.

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DeWolfe said MySpace now counts 20 million unique users to its mobile services, up from 5 million at the beginning of 2008. In addition, the company relaunched its mobile site (though to mixed reviews) and announced new integration deals with the Palm Pre and Nokia N60 last week. The company says it is confident that “most smartphone makers” will feature MySpace by the end of 2009. Currently, MySpace Mobile operates across several platforms, including:

By comparison, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said last month that Facebook is also seeing 20 million unique users accessing Facebook across mobile platforms, up from 15 million users in January. As we’ve covered extensively in the past, Facebook currently operates 5 mobile services, including:

By Inside Facebook’s count, Facebook for iPhone grew by over 1 million active users in January, while Facebook for Blackberry grew by over 0.8 million active users – each up by over 20% for the month. (MySpace did not break down its mobile users by platform.)