HELSINKI (Reuters) - Cell phone maker INQ Mobile plans to introduce a Twitter phone in time for the Christmas sales season, hoping to benefit from surging interest in the micro-blogging service, INQ's head told Reuters on Tuesday.
The model would be the first mass-market phone -- costing operators less than $140 -- with an Internet-based Twitter client, said Frank Meehan, chief executive of INQ.
Meehan said in an interview the phone will use Internet connections for sending the 140-character messages, called Tweets, not text messages as in Twitter's own service.
"This can really help open up and drive Twitter use on mobile when usage becomes part of your data package like on the PC," he said.
Twitter, a two-year-old company that lets people send 140-character messages, or Tweets, has seen explosive growth in recent months.
Meehan said INQ, a fully owned subsidiary of Hong Kong's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, has sold 700,000 phones since the 2007 introduction of the Skype phone.
In addition to the Twitter phone, it plans to launch another new model for the Christmas market.
INQ is benefiting from its early move to make reasonably priced phones for connecting to social networks and the Internet in general -- a move large handset makers like Nokia and Sony Ericsson are now following.
"INQ Mobile was the first to offer an affordable handset that appeals to the connected generation that wants instant access to web services such as Facebook and Skype," said Ben Wood, research director at consultancy CCS Insight.
"Other manufacturers are also jumping on the social mobile bandwagon and INQ Mobile needs to exploit its agility to stay one step ahead as it looks to ink deals with more operators," Wood said.
The majority of visits to online social networks are still made by people sitting at a computer telling their friends where they are and how they are feeling, exchanging opinions on their favorite movies and music or uploading videos.
INQ, however, has proved the spontaneous and personal nature of much of that communication also lends itself to the mobile phone. The INQ1 model, dubbed the Facebook phone, won the award for best handset at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February.
The phone integrates key features of Facebook into the phone's address book, removing the need to separately log on to the service.
Marc Allera, director of sales and marketing at operator 3 UK, said the traffic numbers from INQ1 were usually three to four times higher than from other phones, with 65 percent using Facebook on a regular basis and 50 percent using Windows Live Messenger.
Mobile operators see the take up of new mobile services as crucial for their growth in mature markets, where call prices are falling.
Allera said comparable traffic could be generated by Apple's iPhone, but not by other smartphones.
"On usual smartphones the Internet experience is in no way close and their price is 3-4 times higher," Allera said.
Reporting by Tarmo Virki; editing by Will Waterman and Simon Jessop