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Facebook phone: Hit or hazard?

(MoneyWatch) Facebook (FB) finally announced the Facebook phone that CEO Mark Zuckerberg swore up and down didn't and wouldn't exist. But yesterday's "wrong strategy" is today's new feature available on a handful of phones, including the HTC One, HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S III and S IV and Samsung Galaxy Note II.

It's an attempt at using an app to break the app experience. But it's a gamble, both for Facebook and for the phone manufacturers.

Facebook avoided one of the big potential problems by not intrinsically tying it to any one phone or vendor. Instead, the company has created a Facebook-centric information presentation framework that works on a variety of phones that use Google's (GOOG) Android operating system.

(One reason it likely has to pick particular phones is that handset manufacturers can and do modify the Android operating system. Another is that Google is a rival and won't be modifying its product to feature Facebook any time in the near future.)

Facebook's danger is that it may count too much on pulling users into its own world. Unlike being in control of the user interface on its own website or smartphone and tablet apps, in the bigger world of the smartphone, Facebook is a guest. It cannot dictate the broader user experience and expect phone owners to go along. There is also the potential for things going wrong on a phone and for Facebook to take the blame.

The other risk is for the handset vendors. Branding is a powerful thing. Samsung has begun to realize the advantage it sees from emphasizing the "Galaxy" and corporate names and brands rather than referring to itself as an Android hardware vendor. Other vendors are bound to recognize a competitive imperative to be the main name that buyers remember and hopefully return to time and again.

Putting Facebook in control of the home page cedes that valuable marketing advantage to Zuckerberg's company, which could help influence at least some customers to put faith in Facebook first, the handset company second. And when your biggest competitor is Apple (AAPL), that's a dangerous option.

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