I am playing catch-up with the news from Facebook F8 developer conference, but looking at some of the (excellent) press reports, a couple of things stand out as being of interest as providing pointers as to where Facebook is heading.
1. Messaging as a Platform
One of the announcements that got most coverage was the release of an API to allow third-parties to integrate their apps and experiences into Facebook. To the cynical (a grouping I sometimes find myself associated with), this seems as an attempt by Facebook to ensure that any new, trending mobile service will piggy-back seamlessly onto the existing Facebook network of users, rather than create its own standalone network. This will save Facebook the bother and expense of acquiring the nascent service at over-inflated valuations (e.g. Facebook paid $750m or $28 per user for Instagram). TechCrunch provides an excellent analysis of Facebook’s strategy.
There is no denying that this makes good sense. Although Facebook has long provided a platform for web-based games, browser-based applications are clunky to use on a mobile phone. The messaging interface can provide a much more seamless environment to create new experiences, particularly social ones, such as Snapchat ephemeral messaging app . One can easily imagine an Uber-type car-hailing application being built into the Facebook Messenger environment. This is a strategy that is working very well for WeChat and Line. The Economist estimates that 85% of WeChat’s revenue will come from gaming, while the bulk of Line’s revenue comes from the sale of stickers and other virtual items. A good overview of the breadth of services offered by other mobile messaging is provided by Matt Watt Jones below. It is over a year old, but gives a decent flavour to the multitude of revenue options being pursued by the messaging platforms, and shows how Facebook is a follower in this field, hot on the heels of a multitude of Asian innovative players.
2. Connecting Things to the Social Cloud
The second development that grabbed my attention was the announcement that Parse, Facebook’s cloud platform for building mobile apps and services was going to provide a software development kit for integrating Internet connected devices. At face value, this seems an odd development – why would ‘things’ need a social network? There are however a number of reasons why this would make sense for Facebook.
First, Parse wants to place itself as the premier one-stop-shop platform for mobile app developers, provide a host of tools including data storage and sharing, social integration, background tasks, notifications, analytics and security in a way that runs across all major mobile and web platforms. With the growth of the Internet of Things, the demand from developers for cloud platforms that work with both apps and ‘things’ will increase, so here Facebook is simply anticipating demand.
Secondly, and perhaps more interesting, it makes it easier to control or manage internet connected devices from social networks, particularly Facebook. This can open up a whole suite of applications, not only in the smart home space, but in retail, physical gaming and wearables. The list is endless. Twitter’s micro-blogging model lends itself better to being adopted by the Internet of Things, and there are several applications, from weather stations to coffee machines that automatically provide updates via tweets, although these are hardly ‘social’ interactions. The millennials generation brought up on a diet of social networks will expect to interact with their physical possessions in the same way and through the same means as they chat, play, meet and interact with their friends. To this generation, not having this option will seem extremely odd.
But finally, the most significant driver for Facebook is that it extends its famous Social Graph, its social network database from solely storing interactions between people to also including the interactions between things and people. Facebook’s revenue model is built on the monetisation of the networks of relationships between its users, and any organisation with a Facebook presence. Through its Social Graph, this all-knowing database, it builds a comprehensive and intimate picture of likes, dislikes and preferences, which it has learnt to sell profitably to advertisers. Adding information from the things we own, be they fitness or health devices, our cars, our heating appliances, or items we interact with – for example parking spaces, retail outlets, outdoor advertising hoardings, will provide a whole further layer of detail and insight into each of us, thereby further increasing the value of its database to advertisers.
As outlined by Marc Goodman in his book Future Crimes, this is something we should be very wary of. Just as Facebook-connected apps can post updates on behalf of the user, so will networked devices such as household appliances, smart watches, cars and shops. However, in the physical world, it is near-on-impossible to log off, meaning that social networks may be about to become a whole load more pervasive and all-encompassing.