TECHNOLOGY

Facebook’s Master Plan to Be the Place Where Everything Happens

Virtual and augmented reality, live video, workplace software: Facebook’s digital world is rapidly eating the real one, with massive implications for businesses.

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BY Sonya Mann - 09 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Editor's Note: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will be speaking at Inc.'s 2017 GrowCo conference on Tuesday.

Facebook has long wanted its users to manage their social and business relationships via its website and apps. Increasingly, Facebook is driving them to conduct those relationships in their News Feeds, Messenger conversations, Instagram accounts, and so on. It's a shift with big implications for companies trying to understand how Facebook fits into their strategic and marketing goals.

Whether it's the social networking giant's push into virtual reality, the increasing prominence of live video or the continued expansion of Slack competitor Workplace, Facebook is redefining its products as the venues where all aspects of life unfold, not just the place you go to post photos of it after the fact.

Facebook isn't satisfied with owning the most attractive distractions on your phone. It would rather be the place where the most meaningful parts of your life actually happen.

The more immersive Facebook's products become, the more value they'll have for advertisers, of course. But that's taking the narrow view. If Facebook can truly eat the whole world, to borrow Facebook board member Marc Andreessen's famous line about software, it will open up untold new business models. Will people need virtual clothing to wear on their journeys through virtual worlds? Will Workplace spawn an ecosystem of third-party apps as robust as Slack's?

Hegemonic tech companies succeed by being the interaction layer -- the "operating system" for a particular aspect of life. For example, Google's suite of products serve as the operating system for seeking and managing information. As Google's partner in the near-duopoly of digital advertising, Facebook is an operating system for social connection.

"Our goal is to strengthen existing communities by helping us come together online as well as offline," Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his February manifesto, "as well as enabling us to form completely new communities, transcending physical location."

Facebook's VR app Spaces, which depends on Oculus Rift technology, is a nascent way for users to dart between virtual environments and 360 video of real places. It's a little aesthetically clunky at the moment, resembling nothing more than Nintendo's Mii system for the Wii. However, "[b]y leveraging Facebook's ubiquity in day-to-day life, Spaces promises to make virtual reality more personal, and more relatable, than it's ever been," Peter Rubin wrote for Wired after an extended demo.

Facebook's F8 developer conference in April emphasized the features that will drive this shift, some of which are practical and immediate -- AKA copying rival Snapchat's approach to augmented reality as thoroughly as possible:

For Facebook, this year's F8 conference has been all about augmented reality. The company is making a big push to allow developers to engineer 3-D animations and experiences for the Story features new to the Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram apps. The company believes that stories on your phone is the start of the AR wave, but eventually, consumers will experience reality and augmented reality -- known as "mixed reality" -- through smart glasses.

Eventually AR glasses "will become a vital part of our everyday lives, and that will create tremendous opportunities for everyone in this room," said Michael Abrash, chief scientist of Facebook's Oculus.

But Facebook also used F8 to preview far more futuristic projects, including technologies to enable typing with your brain and listening with your skin. It's not clear what will eventually make it to market, which is always the case when it comes to exploratory R&D.

From a business perspective, Facebook is still "an advertising company with a bunch of hobbies," as a former executive once described Google. The vast majority of the company's revenue comes from ads, and its speculative ventures (another one is providing internet infrastructure in developing countries) are currently just strategic groundwork.

But the hobbies are starting to look serious. Now among the five most valuable public companies, Facebook already has more impact on consumers than perhaps any other company. Now imagine a world where people work, learn and socialize all within a Facebook-owned environment.