On April 12th and 13th, social networking giant Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) held its most recent F8 developer conference in San Francisco, CA, to unveil the latest products and services developed by the company for its online social media platforms. Presentations at the conference touched on numerous social media platforms gathered under the Facebook aegis, including virtual reality division Oculus VR, messaging service Messenger, photo sharing platform Instagram among others.
A keynote speech delivered on the first day of F8 by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg along with other company executives laid out a 10 year road map for the company. “We stand for connecting every person for a global community, for bringing people together, for giving all people a voice, for the free flow of ideas and culture across nations,” Zuckerberg said. He supported this with soundbites he has repeated in the past, including the four billion people around the world without any Internet access. Striking some chords of global economic goodwill, he then stated that for every 10 people who gain access to the Internet, one person is lifted out of poverty. It’s not clear where that statistic comes from, but a study published in February 2014 by consulting firm Deloitte for Facebook reported that increasing the global population of Internet users in developing economies by 2.2 billion would lift 160 million people out of poverty.
One method that would help Facebook reach more people around the world would be to make data cheaper and one way the social media firm is trying to accomplish that is with its Free Basics online services portal operated through its Internet.org initiative. Interestingly, Free Basics hasn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms across the world and in February, Indian telecom regulators banned differential rating services like Free Basics which are zero-rated but only provide access to preferred apps. Still, Zuckerberg’s comments indicated that he saw Free Basics as a foundational tool in Facebook’s quest for more users. During the keynote speech, he announced new developer tools for Free Basics which would make it easier to simulate apps and how they would run on devices constrained by hardware or network capability.
Getting Internet to people in isolated, rural regions where there’s no network access regardless of the price was another goal and Facebook’s 10-year vision includes some lofty technologies, some literally so. One such high-altitude Internet portal would be created by solar-powered planes having a wingspan of a Boeing 737 but weighing less than a car. It could stay in the air for about three months at a time while flying at altitudes of at least 60,000 feet, three times higher than commercial airflight. The communications system would use ground-based lasers to establish a connectivity link with the aircraft, a technique which reaches a wide area but can be affected by weather. These carbon fiber drones are not a new product but Zuckerberg mentioned them as part of Facebook’s global Internet access campaign along with satellites that the company plans to launch for providing Internet connectivity to sub-Saharan Africa.
The increasingly global nature of Facebook was reflected in the developers which had assembled at the mid-April conference. Zuckerberg lauded the growth of Facebook’s developer community, which had grown by 40 percent during the past year, more than 70 percent of which came from regions outside of the United States. Facebook’s head of payments and commerce, Deborah Liu, and its director of strategic partnerships, Ime Archibong, laid out more ways in which Facebook would try to connect with the global community outside of America making up 83 percent of Facebook’s total user base. These include rolling out documentation for all major Facebook products in 16 languages and increasing the number of languages supported by Facebook so as to better incorporate the more than 6,000 languages spoken around the globe which aren’t supported online. The globalized nature of Facebook’s mobile startup app development platform FbStart, which has gained 9,000 members from 136 countries in two years, was also noted.
A number of new social media products targeting businesses and consumers were unveiled during the keynote, including changes to the Messenger platform allowing for chatbots, automated messaging response tools that businesses can use to stay connected with consumers without requiring a human operator to monitor messages. This customer service messaging system, which could grow in value to $4 billion in coming years according to some reports, uses artificial intelligence techniques to learn the preferences of individuals messaging a business to provide them with recommended products or other personalized services. Helping consumers find the bots which would interest them most is the newly released Bot Engine, a search engine existing within Messenger that recommends bots for retail stores, delivery services and more to users. With 900 million monthly users, Messenger is now processing three times as many messages as the short message system (SMS) did at the height of its use. Despite the popularity of Messenger, there were reports that Facebook will be keeping Messenger separate from its other messaging app property, WhatsApp.
Facebook has long tried to position itself as a basic portal to the Internet and its new Account Kit service might help make Internet users even more reliant on Facebook as a means to access apps. Using Account Kit, app developers can create a secure login portal without requiring app users to create a unique password and account name, both of which can be forgotten. At least one app, Indian music distributor Saavn, saw its daily new registrations jump by 33 percent in the two months after implementing Account Kit, according to keynote speakers. The SMS-based system also works for those who don’t have a Facebook account, but the way the company is positioning itself as an app portal seems pretty clear here.
Video is another major frontier in which Facebook is trying to stake claims. By 2021, Facebook expects that 70 percent of all mobile traffic will be devoted to watching videos, an activity that most people already practice for about 3.4 hours per day. Live video broadcasts from Facebook users through the Facebook Live platform were lauded by Zuckerberg because viewers tended to watch live moments longer and those posts receive ten times as many comments as other videos. At this F8 conference, Zuckerberg announced the creation of a new Facebook Live API which gives developers tools for embedding live streaming video into the apps they develop. It would also allow them to use third-party cameras with greater capabilities than a smartphone camera.
Facebook is also banking on virtual and augmented realities, which we saw as a major focus at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, as driving future demand for online video content experiences. Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox unveiled a new camera system for recording 360 video for virtual reality experiences known as the Facebook Surround 360. According to Cox, it reduces post-processing times for editing VR video by an order of magnitude. The entire system includes 3D video capture hardware and stitching code designed to generate seamless stereoscopic panoramas. According to Cox, the designs for both the hardware and software will be open sourced and made available this summer on open source provider GitHub. “We’re not getting into the camera business,” Cox said. Facebook executives stated their belief that sharing VR experiences online with others would be a big part of the future of social media; instead of two-dimensional videos of family members or friends, social media users could immerse themselves in a 3D representation of the scene.
Other new technologies being offered by Facebook include more powerful app analytics tools that pulls insights on app users including data like age, gender, location, education or interests in order to customize apps for greater consumer retention. Other tools include quote sharing tools which let Facebook users clip text from a separate browser or app to share on the social network. The Save button, which Facebook had already released for users who want to store Facebook content, is now capable of clipping content which isn’t on Facebook.
The second day of F8 saw news of a significant hire to run its advanced research facility Building 8. Regina Duncan, formerly the head of Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects group, was hired by Facebook to run Building 8 where it’s been reported that her team will likely focus on Internet connectivity solutions.