(USA Today) SAN FRANCISCO -- It was years in the making; is the Facebook phone worth the wait?
Ultimately, that's for consumers and reviewers to decide.
Rumors have swirled for years about the mystical phone, which Facebook introduced at its headquarters today. For the financial sake of Facebook, it's imperative that the new phone -- manufactured by HTC, carried by AT&T and sporting an Android operating system -- sells well. It's the linchpin in the social-networking company's pursuit of mobile ads. The $99 phone goes on sale April 12.
The phone/service features Home (facebook.com/home), downloadable software that brings the Facebook experience to several Android devices: HTC One X, HTC One X+, Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II.
At first blush, the new phone could find a receptive audience among the under-25 crowd, which is comfortable with having their mobile devices within reach at all times. Facebook chafes at suggestions that teens and twentysomethings are leaving the social network, so a phone immersed in news updates and other Facebook features might go over well.
Facebook, the No. 2 mobile-ad publisher in the U.S. behind Google, last year accounted for 9.5% of the $4.1 billion mobile ad market. It's expected to take 13% of the $7.3 billion market this year, estimates researcher eMarketer.
A phone could "hard wire" the Facebook experience on a mobile device, increasing consumers' time on the service, analysts say. But the experience has to be more than a branded device, they say. Branded phones from Barclays and Mary Kay did not fare well.
"It can't be just about the hardware," says Phillip Redman, mobile analyst at Gartner. "It can do two things for success: Change the business model and give it away to its best users; or design it for low-cost or no-cost calls among Facebook friends."
Facebook's entry is one in a glut of recent smartphone contestants. New models from Samsung (Galaxy S4), HTC (One) and BlackBerry (the Q10 keyboard) highlight a bumper spring crop. Apple's rumored iPhone 5S or iPhone 6 lurks in the shadows.
"The handset market is very competitive," says Clark Fredricksen, vice president at eMarketer. "Samsung, Apple and Android all are gaining market share, and boast computing platforms to feed into (the) mobile market. It remains to be seen if Facebook will gain traction."
Facebook boasts 1 billion members, 30% of which are mobile-only users, according to market researcher ComScore.
It was also the No. 1 mobile app in the U.S. in February in terms of engagement, accounting for 24% of all time spent on mobile apps -- 27%, if you include Instagram.