HTC's 'Facebook' First will be front and center at AT&T

If you thought the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One were going to be AT&T's flagship phone this spring, you'd be wrong.

HTC First
The HTC First. Josh Miller/CNET

The Facebook-powered HTC First can count on at least one close friend: AT&T.

The Dallas-based wireless carrier, which is the exclusive partner to Facebook and HTC for the First, is promising to give the device its most prominent position in stores when it launches on Friday. That's because AT&T considers the HTC First its flagship smartphone for the spring, Claudia Knop, a device executive with the carrier, told CNET.

It's a curious decision by AT&T, which also has the HTC One and Galaxy S4 waiting in the wings. While AT&T will offer both devices, Knop said the carrier would focus its promotional efforts on the First. It helps that the First has a massive partner in Facebook supporting the device, and will be available only at AT&T.

The First provides an intriguing gauge of AT&T's clout with consumers and could force the industry to re-evaluate the value of a carrier flagship phone. While vendors have used such coveted positions in the past as a springboard to success, many of them are now opting to skip the exclusivity deal and seek the widest distribution possible.

Apple's iPhone 5 and Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S4 are both broadly available across multiple carriers. The industry giants no longer need to rely on carrier promotion, with Samsung in particular not shy about spending to promote its own products. The HTC One has attempted to emulate the model, although Verizon Wireless remains its key holdout.

On the other hand, Nokia has held fast to the tradition of signing an exclusive deal, giving AT&T the sole rights to sell the Lumia 920 in exchange for additional marketing support. But during a crowded holiday season, the Lumia 920 did OK, but not great, as consumers continued to flock to iPhones or the Galaxy S3.

HTC did so last year as well with the Droid DNA for Verizon, although it looks to be changing its tune now. The First likely won't be the turnaround spark the company is looking for.

The HTC First faces similar challenges, with the HTC One and Galaxy S4 expected to monopolize consumers' attention. Beyond the Facebook Home user interface, the phone itself is wholly unremarkable, with specifications that are far from a typical flagship device.

Given the onslaught of two high-profile phones, and a rumored new iPhone around the corner, few give the HTC First much of a chance.

There's even some question about whether Facebook even has the draw to justify a "Facebook phone," with one Piper Jaffray study finding a sharp drop in teen interest in the social network versus a year ago. Facebook, of course, counters that if even a small fraction of its billion-strong user base uses Facebook Home, it would be deemed a success.

Knop, meanwhile, said she believes the lower price and focus on Facebook will be attractive to certain users, but conceded power users would likely look to the higher-end devices.

While the First isn't likely to drop off the face of the Earth like the ill-fated Status -- an HTC flop that tried to incorporate a dedicated Facebook button -- it's still unclear whether it will ever grow beyond a niche device for the few truly dedicated Facebook fans, regardless of whether it has AT&T's backing or not.

 

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