Facebook is widely expected to file for its IPO this week, with an actual offering date some time in May.
It will be one of the biggest public offerings of any company in history — Facebook plans to raise up to $10 billion at a $100 billion valuation.
But the fact that Facebook is so widely used makes it a hugely symbolic event as well. Normal people who otherwise would never care about a tech company hitting the public markets are going to be paying attention to this one.
In coming years, the Facebook IPO will probably stand out as a once-per-decade event in the tech industry, alongside these other biggies:
- Apple’s IPO in 1980 kicked off the personal computer era. Apple’s IPO kicked off the personal computing era, but the company blew its early lead. IBM launched its PC a little later, but it really took Microsoft to open the PC market to dozens of low-cost clones, crystalize the vision — a computer on every desk and in every home — and figure out that software, more than hardware, would drive adoption.
- Netscape’s IPO in 1995 launched the Internet era. Before Netscape, the Internet was a tool for academics and nerds. Six months after Netscape went public, the phrase “dot-com” started showing up in TV commercials, and dozens of eventual Internet giants — from Yahoo to Amazon — followed. Netscape eventually got crushed by Microsoft’s decision to bundle Internet Explorer with Windows (as well as by its own missteps), but the dot-com era was no doubt the Netscape era.
- The launch of the iPhone in 2007 began the mobile era. Palm, RIM, Microsoft and a few other companies had built combination phone-computers before 2007, but Apple took the concept and pushed it into the mainstream, with a lot of help from Google’s fast-following Android and all its hardware partners. In a short five years, Microsoft has lost its monopoly on Internet-connected clients, everybody has an “app store,” and (as William Gibson once pointed out), the silhouetted figure of a person checking a smartphone has replaced the cigarette smoker as the most common scene on a city street.
- The Facebook IPO will kick off the social era.
In each case, these companies did not just launch products. They launched platforms on which thousands or millions of others could make their own businesses, and in the process changed what people did with technology.
Facebook is doing the same thing with social.
The importance of Facebook’s IPO is not about Facebook the product, where people go to share pictures of their kids or their high scores on Farmville.
The importance is Facebook the platform, which allows developers to build social experiences into everything they create, regardless of the computing device that users have in front of them. Whether it’s a desktop PC, laptop, smartphone, even a dumb phone, Facebook is building a platform that will let you share what you do.
There will of course be competing platforms — Google is trying with Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn have their own spins, and companies like Box and Jive and Yammer might end up carving out the “Facebook for the enterprise” niche.
But five years ago, a lot of people scoffed at the idea that mainstream computer users would want to share everything they did online.
Now, the idea is taken for granted.
In another five years, we’ll barely remember a time when it was HARD to share what you’re doing, watching, hearing, or thinking with thousands of other people in real time.
(By the way, Google’s IPO was a huge event, but it didn’t kick off a new era in computing — nobody else has a search business but Google, and the rise of Web apps and cloud computing, while significant, had its roots in the dot-com era and was driven forward as much by enterprise companies like Salesforce as it was by Google.)