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Facebook rolls out Home app suite for smart phones

Facebook made its most significant foray into smart phones yesterday, a bid that enables it to gain a far better understanding of what consumers are doing in the increasingly prevalent world of mobile technology.

The company introduced a new suite of software programs, called Home, that put a user’s Facebook page on the home screen of Android smart phones. Consumers would be able to instantly see updates from their Facebook friends, quickly reply to network messages or easily use Facebook’s suite of apps.

If widely adopted, the move would allow Facebook, which has struggled to make money on mobile devices, to significantly expand its trove of social data that it sells to advertisers.

“By creating a deeper integration with mobile software, Facebook is looking to compete at the same level as a starting point for consumer behavior – which is increasingly where the big tech titans do battle,” said Clark Frederickson, vice president at the ad analytics firm eMarketer.

The company said the data it can collect with Home is the same as the information it gathers when people visit its site through web browsers on desktop or laptop computers. No ads will appear on users’ home screens at launch, though Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the company will look into that option in the future.

Facebook also said that Home will be able to document which apps users open. But it said it will only collect that data from a small subset of users and will only use it to evaluate how the software is working.

By putting its hub of apps front and center on smart phones, the company hopes people will spend more time on its social network.

“The phone will help them become a more powerful data landlord in the mobile marketplace,” said Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Some analysts were doubtful that Facebook could persuade people to create a new way to interact with their mobile devices, which are fast becoming the most dominant technology platform around the world.

Adam Leach, an analyst for Ovum, a technology research firm, said that he wasn’t sure a Facebook-centered phone would appeal to anyone apart from the network’s biggest fans.

To grow its user base, he said, Facebook needs “to be designing something that pulls people into using this – even if they’re really only an occasional Facebook user.”

Zuckerberg said social networks continue to be a draw, even on mobile.

“Today our phones are designed around apps, not people,” Zuckerberg said at the unveiling of the phone, which took place at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. “We want to flip that around.”

Focusing on mobile is vitally important for the network, which faced concerns that its profitability would fade as more of its users reached the site using mobile devices rather than through the traditional web, where its easier to display ads. The Home announcement showed that Facebook sees mobile as its primary platform. The company’s stock rose on the news, closing 3.1 percent higher at $27.07.

“We think this is the best version of Facebook there is,” Zuckerberg said.

Facebook also announced a partnership with HTC, which will pre-install the Facebook suite of apps on the new HTC First, which goes on sale April 12. Users will also be able to download Home onto select Android phones through Google’s app store. Company officials did not address whether they had plans to bring a version to the iPhone.

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