Facebook Phone could be announced on January 15

Facebook is hosting a press event at its HQ on January 15 and is reportedly hosting another event in London simultaneously. Little is known about what the event is about but we know Facebook does not host events unless it has something huge to announce. We can safely say that the announcement is not going to be about a new app or a minor feature update. Today TechCrunch reports their sources say that the event is a “big deal” about “mobile” and that naturally makes us think about the mythical Facebook Phone.

Yes, the idea of a Facebook Phone has been floating around for two years and Mark Zuckerberg himself has denied the possibility a few times. But then we are used to the idea of companies denying they are working on something only to launch it later anyway. Remember the Google Phone? Or that Apple would never make a smaller tablet? Yet, both the Nexus phones and iPad mini are real and selling in stores.

“We want to not just have apps that people use but also be kind of deeply integrated into the systems as possible. We want to support a development ecosystem, where other apps can build on top of Facebook. So that’s why you’ll see us do things like support Apple in the iOS integration that they wanted to do. There are a lot of things that you can build in other operating systems as well that aren’t really taking – that aren’t really like building out a whole phone, which I think wouldn’t really make much sense for us to do,” Zuckerberg said during the company’s first quarterly earnings call while answering a question related to building the Facebook Phone.

The idea of Facebook working its own phone grew steam when AllThingsD reported on ‘Project Buffy’ way back in November 2011. At that time it was reported that the phone was still 12-18 months away, which times right with Facebook’s press event. Facebook was apparently working with HTC to develop a smartphone running on a heavily customized version of Android or what we believe would be a forked version of Android.

In May 2012, Bloomberg reported that Facebook had started hiring engineers from Apple, especially some who had worked on the iPhone’s hardware. New York Times followed it up with another report stating the online social networking company had tied up with HTC to launch a phone in 2013.

Between the first Facebook Phone reports and now, Facebook has ramped up its mobile offerings from just a Facebook app to a messaging service, a camera app (Facebook acquired Instagram), an app store of sorts and also launched Facebook Zero, a service for feature phone users in emerging markets where they could access Facebook from their mobile phones for free. Facebook has even tied up with carriers to increase sign ups from countries like India where majority of users would have their first brush with the Internet on mobile phones, a key user segment for Facebook to increase its user base as developed markets get saturated.

We doubt Facebook would go head first to compete with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android smartphones in developed markets like North America and Europe. However, its mobile strategy could revolve around emerging markets that still have high proliferation of feature phones but a user base that Facebook really wants to join THE social network. These are the users that will help it grow beyond its current one billion active users, which is critical not just for the company’s stock price but also for it to be more relevant in the future. Facebook has the Google envy and has aspirations to become a dominant search engine with the additional social angle, something that Google is trying to preempt with its Google+ service.

But here’s the thing about technology companies – they are expected to do certain things that analysts and tech press ‘wants’ them to do without first-hand knowledge about the company’s long-term projects already under way. Having said that, there are enough crumbs of evidence strewn in the past 18 months or so for us to anticipate a Facebook Phone on Tuesday.