Welcome to the first in a new series, where we take a look at the history of a tech company which has helped to shape the digital economy, and make some predictions about what the future might hold. First up is Facebook, the social network which has achieved global penetration with one and a half billion users. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
The story so far
Facebook started out in early 2004 as a ‘Hot or Not’-style campus network where students could ‘rate’ their fellow Harvard peers, but it soon evolved beyond an extension of creator Mark Zuckerberg’s male privilege and gained traction with other universities, before swiftly becoming the de facto tool for connecting with people in the developed world.
Facebook went public in 2012, and as of 2015 it is the fastest company to achieve a market cap of $250 billion. Unfortunately, its status as the most mainstream of all social networks has resulted more recently in Facebook being perceived as uncool, and the site has experienced something of a millennial exodus, with teen users flocking to newer platforms like Snapchat and Periscope.
But while Facebook might no longer considered the most exciting place to be on the web, its size and share of the digital market enables it to identify how people spend their time online. For instance, Facebook was quick to notice that mobile users were a fast-growing group, and that different apps suited different behaviours, e.g. Facebook for consumption, Instagram for creation, and WhatsApp for sharing.
This knowledge allows Facebook to adapt its offering accordingly, including acquiring both Instagram and WhatsApp, popular platforms in their own right which have helped expand Facebook’s reach. Other acquisitions have proven instrumental in building Facebook as we know it, from Face.com, the facial recognition technology behind tagging, to ad-serving tool Atlas, which is responsible for pretty much all of Facebook’s advertising revenue.
Never content to focus on just one thing at a time, Facebook is constantly embarking on dozens of endeavours, with varying degrees of success. Its current pet projects include usurping Periscope and Meerkat by branching out into broadcasting with Live, and of course continuing its mission to connect people in the developing world with Internet.org. Here are some of the key areas where Facebook will be bringing you new products and services in the near future.
While Facebook’s News Feed has traditionally been proliferated with external links to articles, a new partnership with media outlets such as The New York Times and BBC News will enable users to click and read stories without leaving the site. Facebook is also dusting off its old Notes function, with the aim of repurposing it as a blogging tool, and potentially another content marketing vehicle for brands.
“Though Medium already seems to be the platform of choice for journalists and many professionals in media and technology, Facebook has a huge built-in audience who may be eager for a new way to share their thoughts — and see them spread — through the site,” says The Verge’s Jacob Kastrenakes.
We’ve been waiting for Facebook to introduce a ‘Buy’ button ever since brands started promoting their products on Pages. Now it looks like on-site shop fronts are on the way, with Buy buttons being tested among a small number of online retailers. In addition to bringing the entire customer purchase journey onto the network, Facebook is also working on a personal shopper service called Moneypenny, which will interact with users via instant messaging, and connect them with sales and customer service personnel.
According to Piper Jaffrey analyst Gene Munster, Facebook is “making the most aggressive investment” in VR technology and talent (including acquiring Oculus Rift), indicating an intention to become the dominant player in this emerging space.
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe believes that Facebook is already a leader what is still a largely unproven technology, telling Wired: “Facebook really supercharged not just Oculus around recruiting and development but the VR industry… When Facebook acquired Oculus, the game changed immediately. You saw big companies jumping in. You saw people like Google getting fully committed and then Microsoft came along with HoloLens — there was a lot of stuff that people were doing before but now the space really ignited.”
We’ve been expecting to see drones on Facebook’s agenda ever since it acquired aerospace company Ascenta. According to VP of Engineering, Jay Parikh, test flights on a giant solar-powered drone codenamed ‘Aquila’ will commence this year. With a reported wingspan of 140 feet and weighing in at less than 1,000lbs, the drone has been designed for high-altitude flights of up to three months.
Drones are expected to play a key role in Facebook’s on-going mission to broadcast Internet service via lasers to previously unreachable areas of the planet. “Our mission is to connect everybody in the world,” says Parikh. “This is going to be a great opportunity for us to motivate the industry to move faster on this technology.”