Facebook may own three of the biggest apps — WhatsApp, Facebook, and Messenger — but it has relatively little influence over the development of the mobile devices and operating systems on which they depend.
Mark Zuckerberg is acutely aware of this — and is a major reason behind the social networking company’s push into virtual reality.
“One of my big regrets,” the 31-year-old CEO told Fast Company, “is that Facebook hasn’t had a major chance to shape the mobile operating system.”
Instead, it is Apple and Google that have set the standards and driven the adoption of what is now the world’s dominant computing platform. Facebook, with its focus on apps, has largely been a passenger.
In today’s mature mobile ecosystem, it would be extremely difficult for Facebook to get any purchase if it decided to go it alone — and it’s not clear why it would want to. But virtual reality is offering a new frontier, one that places Zuck’s $US300 billion tech behemoth firmly in the driving seat.
The new mobile?
In March 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus Rift — a buzzy virtual reality startup founded by Palmer Luckey. Today, VR comprises one of Facebook’s three key initiatives for the future. The other two are AI research, and connecting people in developing countries to the internet for the first time. Zuck spends a third of his time working on each of these projects, he told Fast Company: “These things can’t fail. We need to get them to work in order to achieve the mission.”
It’s easy to get excited about Oculus, and VR in general. Although the technology is most commonly associated with gaming, Luckey has a wildly ambitious vision. Speaking at Web Summit earlier in November, the 23-year-old said that its applications vary from social networking to an education tool — as well as, tantalisingly, “our best shot at a real post-scarcity economy.”
Luckey also said that in time, VR will become “more ubiquitous than the smartphone … eventually, augmented reality and virtual reality are going to converge and combine into the same sets of hardware … if you can carry it all the time,” he argued, there’s “no reason it can’t supplant” smartphones.
That’s an extremely attractive proposition for a tech company that missed the boat on the last revolution in computing, and is looking to get in early on the next big thing.
Zuck told Fast Company that “If you look at how people spend time on all computing platforms, whether it’s phones or desktops before that, about 40% is spent on some kind of communications and media … Over the long term, when [Oculus] becomes a more mature platform, I would bet that it’s going to be that same 40% of the time spent doing social interactions and things like that. And that’s what we know. That’s what we can do.”
If virtual reality is the next big thing, as Facebook is betting, it has managed to get in on the ground floor.
Messenger is trying to eat your smartphone
Zuckerberg’s “big regret” also helps explain Facebook’s current strategy with Messenger. It spun out its messaging service into a standalone app in April 2015, and David Marcus, formerly of PayPal, is heading up these efforts. He’s determined to make it into a platform in its own right.
Also speaking at Web Summit, Marcus laid out a roadmap for the future of mobile that puts Messenger front-and-centre.
Marcus wants companies to use message threads, rather than standalone threads, to communicate with their customers. Why download an app you’ll only use once or twice when you can have a conversation with the company right there in Messenger, he reasons. “People don’t want apps for every single business that you interact with,” he said. They “want the ones on your homescreen and that’s it.”
“When you have the chance to build a great communication within a conversation app … just have a message within a nicely designed bubble … [that’s a] much nicer experience than an app.” It’s a “new generation of apps inside of threads.”
M, Facebook’s new virtual assistant that operates straight out of Messenger, is part of this. It is powered by Facebook’s AI tech, and is supplemented with human assistance when necessary. (It’s only available to a small group of users right now.) The more it can do for you, the less you need to use other apps.
The result is, of course, that Google and Apple lose out. Their grip on your phone weakens, as you eschew their app store in favour of Messenger threads. If Facebook gets its way, it won’t own your mobile operating system — but it will control everything else.
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