Earlier this week, Facebook held an invite-only event dubbed "Mobile Developer Day." The purpose of the gathering was the standard evangelism for the company's platform that I've seen many times before. Yet as I watched as Facebook's director of developer products, Doug Purdy, give the pitch for plugging Facebook into their apps, I couldn’t help but see a deeper vision of what Facebook believes the internet is headed, and how they plan to dominate this new landscape.
For the past ten years, at least, we've grown accustomed to thinking of "the internet" and "the web" as virtually synonymous — they are anything but. Yes, for most people, the internet is a thing you visit with your web browser, but in fact HTML pages are simply one way of using the "series of tubes" that connects us all. Facebook has come to dominate this traditional web, having explosively grown to a billion active users and emerging as one of the biggest drivers of traffic to websites around the world, the social layer underpinning this world.
The nature of the internet is changing
The nature of the internet, however, and the web's central role in it, is rapidly changing. The advent of powerful app ecosystems, led by iOS and Android, has moved much of our online interactions out of the web and into apps. The rise of mobile apps has led to hyperbolic declarations that the web is dead.
To get an understanding of how the internet is changing, look no further than Instagram. Despite having a very small web-presence, the company grew to 30 million users with just an iPhone app and was acquired by Facebook in a billion-dollar deal (give or take a few hundred million). Facebook's acquisition signaled that it cared about photo-sharing, but more importantly, it was a sign that Facebook understands that the internet is fundamentally changing before our eyes. It seems to have been a smart bet. Instagram just passed Twitter in terms of active daily users, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Companies like Palm (and now Mozilla) bet on the accepted wisdom that "the web always wins" by standardizing on web technologies — with surprisingly little success. Google, too, has been pushing its Chrome OS products as a web-centric solution to a buying public that isn’t ready to go all-in on HTML5. When discussing Facebook's natively-coded iPhone app, CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself famously said that "The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5 instead of native." He was speaking strictly in the context of using HTML5 as an empowering technology, but the comment resonated (and was often misinterpreted) because it hinted that Facebook wasn't just about the web anymore.
Purdy told me that it would be going too far to say that Facebook is not as focused on HTML5 or the web as a whole as it used to be. He points out that there are at least 7,000 different types of devices that access Facebook every single day and Facebook is certainly not going to create native apps for all of them. "The web is going to continue to be a breadth play."
Focusing on smartphones means focusing on apps
But while the web continues to play a very active part of Facebook's overall strategy, the company recognizes that smartphones are the future. Focusing on smartphones means focusing on apps — and more specifically, app developers. So Facebook has been aggressively building its own native apps and even more aggressively building out its mobile app platform. There are now hooks to plug into Facebook's news feed, timeline, login credentialing system, pages, notifications system, and a newer product called App Center, which helps to market applications.
The focus has paid off. Purdy says that eight of the top ten grossing iOS applications utilize Facebook in some way and that Facebook’s App Center has already driven over 180 million clicks into the iOS and Android app stores. A more impressive stat is that 40 percent of the top 400 applications across iOS and Android have some level of Facebook integration.
As large as those numbers may seem, they're not nearly big enough to match Facebook's ambitions. Hence, the Mobile Developer Day, where Facebook invited key mobile developers to come and learn more about how the company's platform works.
Speaking to the developers, Purdy gave an abbreviated history of the web. Just as Google and Yahoo helped us make sense of the vast network of web pages in the early days of the web, he explained, app stores on these mobile platforms drive discovery for today's consumers.
"Our biggest design tenet that we have at Facebook is just get out of the way."
With the web, Facebook added an extra layer of discoverability: social. Purdy claims that Facebook is now "the number one source driving traffic on the web," thanks to its Facebook Connect tools and easy ways to share content into and out of its network. It's "word of mouth discovery at scale," he told the assembled developers, and Facebook intends to be just as central to the app side of the internet as it was on the web.
We want to apply the same sets of solutions, we think they actually apply. We think the app stores are very similar to the kinds of search mechanisms that exist on the web, and we think Facebook can serve the same role that it served previously for the web for iOS and for Android applications.
Of course, mobile developers are more interested in their own bottom line than in Facebook's goals. While it's true that Facebook makes their lives easier by offering a login system that's radically simpler than creating their own or using OAuth, the real pitch to developers is the "growth engine." Facebook is telling developers that its tools for socially sharing content work just as well with apps. Again and again, Purdy repeated the mantra "Plug Facebook in, you will grow."
"What we want to function as is a utility where app developers and users can utilize that communication pathway" he told me, "In fact, I think our biggest design tenet that we have at Facebook is just get out of the way and [...] let apps help users tell great stories." Hearing any company describe itself as a "utility" that tries to "get out of the way" is refreshing, but Facebook — especially now that it's a public company — isn't providing this plumbing for mobile developers simply to be nice. Facebook benefits when apps talk to it, providing information to fill out users' news feeds, profile pages, and timelines.
The "frictionless" Open Graph is still too easy to abuse
In Facebook's dream world, you'd just use the apps on your phone that you want to use, and your Timeline and news feed would automatically be filled with rich and interesting (and potentially very valuable) information that you and your friends would want to see. In fact, the company would like to foster the growth of apps that are more closely tied to your personal activities, "Applications that inherently center on you as the user are better apps," according to Purdy.
That dream world may sound more like a nightmare to privacy advocates, but Facebook is well aware of those concerns and doing its best to fix what is often a very complicated and confusing process of granting permissions. While Facebook has improved its system incrementally over the years, it still feel too complicated and opaque. Facebook also is still probably not doing enough to stop developers from making users feel uncomfortable with the default settings. As Spotify’s early forays into Facebook integration taught us, the "frictionless" Open Graph is still too easy to abuse. One developer advocate at Facebook's conference spent time warning developers not to ask users to "get married before you even go on the first date" when it comes to permissions — but the onus is on developers to get it right.
Setting those concerns aside, what's most intriguing about Facebook's platform program isn't how it adds more content to Facebook, but how it has the potential to embed Facebook deeply into the next stage of the internet. Let’s call it "the internet of apps plus the web." So deeply, in fact, that it isn't especially difficult to imagine a world where Facebook has a deeper understanding of users in the iOS and Android App ecosystems than even Apple and Google themselves do. Imagine a world where the majority of apps on your phone were connected to Facebook in some way — combine that information with everything that Facebook already knows about you, and suddenly even Google’s ability to understand who you are begins to seem limited.
"The phone is the most social thing you have."
What could Facebook do with all of that knowledge? The obvious answer seems to be advertising. Facebook could offer to help developers serve up ads the same way they help with the login and sharing feature. Advertising is much more lucrative (and less annoying) when it’s tightly targeted and contextual to what you’re doing, and in theory Facebook could be better positioned to achieve both of those goals at a large scale than anybody else. In fact, the company seems to already be taking steps towards utilizing all this app knowledge for profit.
Facebook is trying to be proactive and get developers used to thinking about their apps as part of the Facebook ecosystem now. Given the scale of the opportunity on smartphones and the risks for not fully participating, it didn't surprise me at all to hear Purdy wax ecstatic about the central role they play in our lives:
The phone is the most social thing you have. All your friends are there. Everything that you’ve ever done that you want to share with everybody is on that device. And so for Facebook, it’s just so important for us to play a role in that.
I told Purdy he sounded really passionate about phones and that Facebook should think about building one. He laughed, and I didn't get the impression that it was a "wink-wink, stay tuned" kind of laugh. If Facebook can pull off the kind of deep and widespread app ecosystem integration it's laying the groundwork for, it may not need to create the "Facebook phone." Every single smartphone with apps on it would already be one.