By Heather Kelly, CNN
(CNN) — The long-rumored Facebook phone might finally be ready to make its debut.
The company is expected to announce a new HTC smartphone running a special Facebook-centric version of Android on Thursday, according to numerous rumors and leaks on tech sites and major publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and 9to5Google.
Expanded smartphone integration is a logical step for the social media company, which has been working hard to increase its mobile presence and make more money off of mobile advertising.
The only official hint doled out by Facebook so far is that the announcement has something to do with Google’s Android mobile operating system, with the invite asking press to “Come see our new home on Android” at its Menlo Park, California headquarters.
Rumors of a Facebook phone have been swirling for years, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly denied the company was “building” a phone, saying Facebook was not interested in becoming a hardware company.
Those carefully worded denials should still stand. If rumors prove true, Facebook hasn’t built a phone, it’s just partnered with a phone manufacturer to place its service and apps more front and center on a typical Android smartphone.
That device is expected to be an HTC 4.3-inch smartphone called the HTC First that bears a passing resemblance to the iPhone, comes in multiple colors, and packs in the usual mid-range specs at moderate price. There doesn’t seem to be much that’s exceptional or new about the hardware itself beyond the Facebook makeover.
Screens shots that purportedly show the new Android homepage, possibly called Facebook Home, show buttons along the top for common Facebook actions, such as updating a status, posting a photo or checking into a location, and icons for the major Facebook apps including Instagram and Messenger in the center of the screen.
Facebook might also release a similar new standalone Facebook Android app for all Android phones.
The homepage retooling would expand Facebook’s reach beyond the standalone Facebook app, spreading its presence into more parts of the smartphone experience. People would end up spending larger amounts of time using the social network’s features, in turn giving Facebook more opportunities to collect data and serve up relevant ads.
Smartphone users are already checking Facebook an average of 14 times a day, according to a recent survey by IDC. Facebook was the most popular mobile app across platforms in 2012 in the U.S. according to comScore, and in January more people were checking Facebook on their mobile devices than desktop computers for the first time.
If priced low enough, a Facebook-centric phone could be appealing to Facebook fans in developing countries, where the network is popular and smartphone sales are still rising sharply. The partnership could also be a boost for Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC, which has been struggling to keep up with smartphone leaders Samsung and Apple.
Facebook has been focusing intensely on mobile since going public in mid-2012. In the past year it has revamped its iOS and Android mobile apps and started displaying ads on mobile devices. As a result, the company has had signficant success making money on mobile. According to a recent report from research company eMarketer, Facebook is currently the second largest mobile ad publisher in the U.S. after Google, and is expected to make $964.9 million in mobile ad revenue in 2013.
This is the third major product announcement from Facebook in recent months. The first was for Graph Search, an advanced search tool for more effectively drilling down into your Facebook to network to find people and pages and companies. Last month the company unveiled a redesigned news feed that looks more like its mobile apps.