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Facebook Wants To Be The Layer Between You And The Future

The future is gonna be great, if you try our API.

Posted on April 12, 2016, at 10:13 p.m. ET

Last night on the way to a happy hour for reporters covering F8, Facebook’s annual conference for developers, I accidentally got in a line for a different happy hour, one meant for the company’s media partners — the publishers increasingly dependent on its platform. I was confused by the trifecta of velvet rope, lady with clipboard, and corporate signage in glacial Facebook blue, all visible from the grimy street in San Francisco’s Mid-Market. Men in VC casual (blazer with jeans, lightweight down coat with jeans, fleece with jeans) made their way inside. My name wasn’t on the list, so I asked what the event was for. “This is for Facebook,” the nice lady said. I’m also looking for Facebook, I told her.

In retrospect, it didn’t really matter. Facebook likes to play nice with both sides, and the drinks were just as free at the party for reporters as they were at the party for the media businesses that employ them.

Facebook has long offered users and businesses on its platform the same Faustian bargain: We’ll give you the tools for free and connect you with each other, and in return you give us the content that makes it all interesting and the data that makes it all lucrative. Facebook is a 12-year-old company now and we know how this story can unfold. The traffic that once seemed like a gift can turn and go elsewhere. But when the future looks so fragmented, those tools can be hard to resist.

Facebook is less of a kingmaker and more like a Hindu deity, creating and destroying markets instead of worlds. And that’s never more clear than at F8. (Onstage this morning, for example, CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared to casually fell the toll-free industry while also extending its lifespan. It was during a demonstration of how users can contact “business bots” from companies from within Messenger. “I find it pretty ironic because now to order 1-800-FLOWERS, you never have to call 1-800-FLOWERS again,” he enthused.)

F8 is ostensibly Facebook’s conference for developers, but considering that Facebook didn’t start talking to engineers until half an hour into the keynote, it clearly has other audiences in mind. Yes, thousands of developers attended this year’s event at Fort Mason, a former U.S. Army post in San Francisco’s Marina District. But the real audience is online, and on the other end of news stories (like this one) about the event.

Every single slide that flashed onstage was easily digestible to the more nontechnical audience members, like code-averse bloggers or, more to the point, biz dev execs and gurus of growth. The one slide that wasn’t easily parsed showed the equations necessary to build Facebook’s new 360-degree camera. That slide appeared expressly to show how much unfathomable work went into what Facebook can make easy. “The math on this is insane!” Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, told the crowd.

But the best indication of who this conference was really for were the slides that display corporate logos over more of that Facebook blue. “Developers” may sound like a bunch of upstart Zucks-in-the-making, but the social network part of Facebook is already more than 10 years old and well into the phase where it has to make its platforms profitable. Simply put, F8 isn’t for developers in the way we’ve always thought of them. It’s the place where Zuckerberg shows big brands a shortcut to the future.

Mark Zuckerberg walked onstage with the confidence of a man who sees where he’s going while everyone else is still groping about in the darkness. While we pop watermelons to figure out Live Video, Zuckerberg is thinking a decade into the future. “We’re going to walk through our road map for the next 10 years,” he said.

Seismic changes were coming, Zuckerberg warned the crowd. New eras were afoot. If you are still reeling from smartphones, you'd best prepare for video. If you don’t have a drone, well here’s one flying onstage. (Here’s another flying overhead that’s about to light up the planet with internet!) If your eye is on America, Facebook’s way ahead of you with 70% of third-party developers coming from outside the U.S. So just stick with Facebook and you’ll be fine. The future is bright. The future is manageable. The future is coming at you from all 360 degrees. The future is here, on Facebook.

To pull that off, Zuckerberg has placed bets, well, everywhere. Augmented reality, virtual reality, live video, 360-degree video, artificial intelligence, business bots. You name it; Facebook is about to offer you a free way to start testing it, whether that’s APIs, the kind of connective software that lets 1-800-FLOWERS make its own app on Facebook Messenger, or hardware that turned the melting heap of cameras necessary to film 360-degree video into a sleek mini-spaceship of a camera that Facebook launched at the end of today’s keynote.

Facebook doesn’t have to choose between messaging or virtual reality. It just colonizes both platforms, figures it out, offers a helping hand to the advertisers, publishers, and e-tailers considering joining, and makes itself indispensable (for a cut). In a way, Facebook almost seems like artificial intelligence itself. Learning and getting smarter as it goes.

When Zuckerberg was onstage it was easy to see why that pitch works. He made the transition to our virtual videographic future sound seamless.

Right now you need a big block strapped to your head to experience virtual reality, but that will soon evolve into a simple pair of glasses. Sure, the business bots trying to communicate with customers in Messenger are pretty crude now, but soon they could truly be artificially intelligent. (And Facebook will even provide the AI.)

It was almost like rendering the future in flat design. The difficulty of deploying satellites or laying down undersea cables and microfiber to connect the next billion? Now a mere icon of a cell tower. The difference between communicating online one-to-one and broadcasting to the entire world? Just a blip on a line.

“Now, let’s talk about the next five years,” Zuckerberg told the crowd. Messenger was the fastest growing app in the U.S., ahead of even Facebook. That got a laugh. (It’s especially funny if, like Facebook, you’re still in first and second place.) People are sending 60 billion messages a day on Messenger, while SMS only sent 20 billion messages a day at its peak. Again, the old create and destroy.

Zuckerberg’s best guided tour, however, may have been through Facebook’s “playbook.” First Facebook explores new technology. Then Facebook builds that technology into a product. Then Facebook attaches that product onto its existing ecosystem of a “a billion or more people,” who can ease into it. One, two, three. Bing, bam, boom. It sounded so freaking simple.

The same easy-peasy pattern popped up throughout the keynote. Here is a new tech. This tech is important. This tech is hard. But Facebook can make it easy. Here, try this simple software/hardware. Now, go off and make money. This was the point of Facebook’s string of APIs and futuristic hardware: to make people stop thinking about 360-degree video as some far-off thing you’ll have to figure out. Facebook has already done it. Just sign on.

The victory after victory after victory started to swerve toward ridiculous. By the time Cox announced that the internet-beaming barges just outside being used for a drone demo were having some trouble because of the weather, I half expected Facebook to explain to us how they found a way to fix the antiquated mess that is the Earth’s atmosphere.

Throwing its considerable weight behind every platform is a nice strategy, if you can get it. A few months ago, analyst Ben Thompson wrote a post breaking down how Facebook “squashed” Twitter, looking in retrospect at the importance of early 2009 when Facebook had a lead on desktop, but only had 35 million active users on mobile compared to Twitter’s 30 million active users who were mostly on mobile. Anything Twitter can do now “can’t make up for the failure to evolve in those critical few years when the attention unlocked by mobile was up for grabs,” he wrote. The flip side of that argument shows how well Facebook has set itself up to succeed. And why Zuckerberg is so paranoid about never making an evolutionary misstep again. (See also: Microsoft and mobile.)

There are no interruptions during a keynote, so Zuck didn’t have to face questions about, say, Facebook’s stumbles with Free Basics. Or how much the spontaneity of live videos sounds like Snapchat. Or a recent report in The Information that Facebook users are sharing 20% less about their personal lives, hurting News Feed, Facebook’s profit center. No one onstage allowed for the possibility that users may not want to chat with airlines and online retailers “like they’re your friend.” Or what happens if businesses decide they don’t really want to give Facebook a cut anymore. Someday there will be another Zuckerberg who will also want to use Facebook’s vertical integration approach, and decide to cut Facebook out of the equation.

That’s not today though.

The easy-glide frictionless let-us-do-it-for-you extended to the conference as well. Veteran tech bloggers like to swap stories about the good old days of elbowing competitors to get a good seat, but everything was in a timed and orderly queue. There were snack stations and Four Barrel coffee and even giant boxes of tampons in the ladies’ restrooms. The Wi-Fi was amazing.

Two industrious entrepreneurs (also dressed in VC caj) were standing outside Fort Mason hours before the event began handing out free vials of nootropics, smart drugs that supposedly make you think better. These are the real deal, they promised; each contained 300 milligrams of some substance that doctors in Europe said would be good for Alzheimer’s in…some way. Every other sign visible around the former U.S. Army base was draped in Facebook logos, so I asked how they were allowed to set up in that prime spot, right by the entrance. The security guards tried to shoo them away, the nootropics salesmen explained, but they "gave them drinks and they seemed to like it.” What would happen to me if I take this? I asked. Will it make me crazy? “If it does, it will probably be in a good way,” they assured me. “I would recommend drinking it cold and fast.”

The substance was alarmingly bubbly and looked like it should be refrigerated, if not FDA regulated, but I guzzled it anyway. Hey, it was free and it promised to make me a better me.

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