Google and Facebook are destined to wage a decade-long war for the future

Back in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his grand ten-year roadmap, showing the company’s trajectory from now through 2026.

Here’s that slide again, in case you missed it:

Facebook f8 roadmap

It points the way to Facebook’s ideal future: A world where everybody’s connected to the internet, where we talk to artificially intelligent computers as if they were human, and — boldest of all — where virtual reality goggles are as common as our smartphones, allowing us to connect with people across the world as intimately as if they were in the same room.

Facebook moved the marker on this ambitious roadmap a little bit forward this week, with more details on how the social network will operate in its ideal virtual reality future. In a demo, Zuckerberg showed off “Social VR,” using a combination of the Oculus Rift headset and a 360-degree camera to mash together virtual reality and the real world like never before.

In Facebook’s vision for the year 2026, the social network plays a key role in more, if not most, of the interactions you have with your fellow humans. It’s a little creepy, given how much Facebook already permeates our personal lives, but it provides a fascinating glimpse of the radical changes coming to the technology we use.

Facebook mark zuckerberg oculus vr priscilla
Mark Zuckerberg takes a ‘modern family’ selfie with his VR avatar, his wife Priscilla video chatting in on Messenger, and his dog Beast as shown on a 360-degree camera. Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg

That’s not to say it will be easy for Facebook.

Just this week, Google held its own big event. And while that presentation was ostensibly to introduce new hardware, it also gave us a glimpse of how Google is thinking about its own future — and the ways in which Facebook’s 10-year strategy overlap with Google’s.

Their core businesses couldn’t be more different — Facebook’s efforts to break into search haven’t yielded much result; Google’s attempts to become a social network are pretty much Silicon Valley punchlines at this point.

Yet in many important ways, Facebook and Google are already going punch-for-punch in a fight that won’t be over any time soon.

Fighting from the sidelines

The most visible part of their fight: Google’s YouTube is the undisputed ruler for web video. But Facebook has been working hard at undermining YouTube’s supremacy by attracting more media brands and advertisers to its video offerings.

But the more interesting competition is in the futuristic and far-reaching technology being developed by each tech giant.

Just this past week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that the company is using artificial intelligence to “build a personal Google for each and every user.” Facebook is investing heavily in AI to personalise its news feed, too.

Facebook’s Oculus subsidiary may have sparked the sudden gold rush towards virtual reality, but Google isn’t far behind with its Daydream View headset, also announced this week. With VR movies projected to be big business, Google doesn’t want to let Facebook steal YouTube’s lead in video advertising.

Google’s parent company Alphabet and Facebook are both making huge investments in connecting the world. Facebook is using self-piloting laser drones, and Google is using balloons, but they share a self-given mission of connecting underserved populations to the internet.

Project Loon
Alphabet’s Project Loon delivers internet to underserved areas via a balloon suspended at a suborbital altitude. The Verge/Google X

On all counts, these are very future-looking businesses. Artificial intelligence is a very young field, and virtual reality is a long ways away from hitting the consumer mainstream. Even those efforts to connect the globe have regulatory hurdles to overcome in many countries.

It’s early enough that these are all sidelines to what each company is really good at. But with a long enough timespan — say, 10 years — there are going to be winners in each field, and there are going to be losers. And each side is stockpiling as much engineering talent as it can to make sure that they’re the ones who walk away from this.

Daydream believer

Ultimately, what this all comes down to is growth amid great technological change.

Google and Facebook, both born in the weird period between the bursting of the first dot-com bubble and Silicon Valley’s current startup boom, successfully navigated the transition from the PC to the smartphone.

The way Google managed that change was largely thanks to Android itself: A smartphone operating system that had Google search and services baked in at every possible level, while also available on a whole range of low- and high-end phones for every possible demographic. Now, Android is the most popular operating system in the world, and Google profits.

Facebook F8 2016
Mark Zuckerberg shows off Facebook’s ultimate vision for what virtual reality glasses will look like by 2026. Facebook

Facebook was slow transitioning from the PC to the smartphone, but quickly caught up and now sees the majority of its users and ad revenue on mobile.

But with the smartphone boom now grinding to a halt, the established businesses of the past decade are due for a shakeup and the hunt is on for the next big thing. Whatever it turns out to be — virtual reality, AI-powered assistants, or the like — Google and Facebook are both vying to repeat the Android trick and become indispensable to the next phase of technology.

This isn’t a battle that will be won with one product release, one new website design, or one app. It’s a war that will be fought in fits and spurts in the years to come.

But for the winner comes control over the future.

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