For years now there’ve been two competing versions of Facebook. It’s either an app on your phone or it’s your entire homescreen. It’s a big part of the internet or it’s the internet. Today, at F8, the social networking giant’s developer conference, Facebook just made a strong case that it’s becoming the latter version.
“Facebook used to be this single blue app and it did a lot of things,” said the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Now Facebook is a family of apps.”
And that family is growing. Wednesday Zuckerberg and other executives unveiled Facebook’s new Messenger platform, which will allow the service’s 600 million users to use a whole host of third-party apps and tools from partners like ESPN, Giphy, and The Weather Channel. It also launched Messenger for Business, which will allow users to communicate directly with businesses instead of calling, emailing, or interacting through a wonky customer service chat app. It’s an ambitious move by Facebook that suggests the social network will continue to creep into new and unexpected areas of our lives, like customer service. It’s also a major sign that Facebook is encroaching on everyone from Google to Apple to Youtube, and even Twitter’s mobile analytics offering Crashlytics in its quest to become, at least on mobile, the entire internet.
Almost two years ago, Facebook unveiled Home, the social network’s attempt to take over the phone. It was a mobile experience designed so that users could take and send photos, chat, and navigate through apps all while safely inside the Facebook ecosystem. It was also, by all accounts a failure. Back in April of 2013 Facebook was still the same colossus it is today, but few people seemed to want to concede that Facebook was the center of mobile universe. Sure, there was plenty to do inside the Facebook ecosystem, but there was plenty more outside its walls and Android and iOS were doing a more than ample job of providing those services.
Today things are different. Instead of wrapping itself around your apps, it’s taking them over from the inside. By turning Messenger into a platform, Facebook is using its 600 million active users as a carrot to attract influential third-party developers, who will in turn create exciting apps that will keep those users inside the Facebook ecosystem doing things like checking scores on ESPN, finding and saving GIFs with Giphy, doctoring up photos using Pic Stitch, and monitoring the weekend forecast on The Weather Channel app. While the list of launch partners isn’t comprehensive, it’s easy to imagine scores of developers flocking to build apps for Messenger. You go where the people are, and 600 million is a lot of people.
Essentially, Facebook is creating its own mobile ecosystem.
By this logic it’s also not hard to see a future where the Facebook ecosystem can compete with iOS and Android, drawing more and more developers to write in Facebook’s coding language, Parse. Users, meanwhile, will become more and more accustomed to living their lives inside Messenger, thanks to its integration with businesses and retail organizations. Imagine this scenario: Your friend sends you a cute dress via Messenger and you click through in the app, buy it, and then hash out the delivery specifications with a customer service rep. Once the transaction is done, you resume the chat to tell your friend you splurged and bought it, all without leaving the Facebook ecosystem. As one of my colleagues aptly noted, “the transformation of FB into an entire operating system for your life continues.”
In this scenario, Messenger quickly becomes an important app store. Apple? Android? Sure! But those are personal preferences, you pick one or the other. Everyone has a Facebook account. By bringing third parties inside Messenger, Facebook is able to re-create the internet inside its walls like never before, and as users begin to take advantage of Facebook’s simulacrum of the web, they’ll have access to all those apps’ myriad data. Just as Twitter bought Crashlytics to better understand the mobile ecosystem, Facebook will have powerful insight into the analytics of the apps inside messenger and therefore a better understanding (than maybe anyone else) of how the mobile web operates and what new apps and features are poised to break through.
Living inside Facebook’s internet, it’s easy to imagine users would be drawn to Facebook’s native platform as the default for hosting video content. The videos will appear and be shared seamlessly throughout all of Facebook’s different apps. YouTube videos will no doubt be clunkier, harder to share, non-auto playing, and full of third-party ads, if they’re allowed at all.
At F8 today Facebook teased a future that many in the tech world have joked about but that now seems like a plausible reality: Facebook as the entire internet. Not for everyone, but for enough that it can’t be ignored. It’s Facebook as a place that hosts your news, your friends, and your favorite apps. Facebook as a place where you don’t need to leave to send somebody money or to change the shipping address on that new dress you purchased. The version of Facebook that Zuckerberg and company hinted at Wednesday is the beginning of Facebook actually resembling what its executives have imagined for years.
This version of Facebook is one where it is no longer just a single factor in our lives —digital and otherwise — but the overarching context that consumes everything beneath it. Facebook Home may have failed, but this version of Facebook — Facebook as your one true home online — seems like it's here to stay.