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Facebook scores virtual-currency deal in Asia

Partnering with MOL, the Malaysian company that owns former rival Friendster, means Facebook Credits will have a heavily expanded presence in Southeast Asia.

Facebook, on the verge of 500 million members around the world, might envision a global virtual currency with its Credits system. But the way that system is handled in different parts of the world is far from universal.

Very late Wednesday, Facebook announced that it's partnered with MOL Global, a Malaysia-based payment technology company, to offer its Facebook Credits virtual currency for sale through MOL's online channel and in retail stores across South Asia and Australia. MOL's "network" consists of over 500,000 outlets, including cybercafes, convenience stores, and online banks in countries including Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. Co-branded MOL-Facebook gift cards will be available (at least at first) in Malaysia and Singapore.

In the U.S., MOL is best known as the company that acquired social-networking pioneer Friendster late last year.

Facebook has wanted to make e-commerce and transactions part of its service for years now, but repeatedly backtracked and scratched out old plans (remember when it was going to be a "PayPal killer" called Wallet?) before making it clear last year that the central focus of payments on Facebook would be to fund the purchase of virtual goods in the wide array of popular third-party games built on top of the platform.

One of the reasons why Facebook had been so hesitant to roll out a splashy e-commerce plan was because there are already so many established companies in the space, with existing user bases and corporate partnerships. So Facebook began to partner with those companies: Earlier this year, it struck a deal with PayPal, which operates in 190 markets with 24 currencies, to make it possible to buy Facebook Credits with the eBay-owned transaction system. It also has a deal with a mobile payments start-up called Zong that will bill small charges directly to a user's phone bill.

But e-commerce is handled differently in different cultures and different parts of the world, and so Facebook's now making regional partnerships that tap into how mature the digital commerce and virtual-goods industries are there. The virtual-goods industry in Asian countries, for example, is huge; not only does it make that a forward-thinking test market for Facebook, but it means that Facebook Credits need to have a significantly bigger and more accessible profile in order for the currency to catch on.

But this sort of trend--formerly online-only gaming currencies showing up in retail stores--is starting to emerge stateside as well. Zynga, the biggest manufacturer of Facebook-based games, sells prepaid gift cards at retailers like Best Buy and Target. It's likely that an expanded Facebook Credits presence in the U.S. isn't too far off.