Facebook’s brilliant plan to dominate the mobile and internet of things economies

26 Mar 2015

Pictured: Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is on track to be the glue that makes e-commerce actually stick for consumers. And not only that, it could be Facebook that will eventually get your fridge to talk to your supermarket when you run out of milk.

Facebook last night showed that with Messenger Platform which is now being opened up to third party app developers and Messenger Business which could change e-commerce forever, it is morphing from a social network to a sophisticated internet and communications giant.

Not only that, we got a glimpse into how big a contribution Facebook is making to the apps economy and with new SDK’s specifically for the internet of things, Facebook is intent on stealing a march on Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Just prior to the F8 developer conference kick-off, word began to spread of Messenger Platform and Parse Internet of Things as well as something called the ‘Teleportation Station.’ Well, as we correctly guessed the ‘Teleportation Station’ is indeed Facebook’s intention to transform its US$2bn Oculus Rift buy into a serious video conferencing proposition for business. Utilising Samsung’s Gear VR headset F8 delegates were transported from the conference to a meeting room at Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ where a DJ pumped out tunes. So, for now, ‘Teleportation Station’ is a tantalising aspiration.

But it was on the software front where Facebook is going to make an immediate difference.

Messenger Platform

More than 600m people around the world use Messenger to conduct private and group messages. Yesterday’s big news is that Facebook intends to enable app developers to blend their apps with what’s going on inside those messaging threads.

From last night Facebook revealed that Messenger Platform is open to all developers and it has already worked with 40 developers in advance to allow people to throw video clips, gifs, curated content and more into their Messenger threads. These include Action Movie FX, Imgur, Keek, GIF Keyboard, ESPN, GIF Jam, Imoji, Giphy and JibJab, to name a few.

Facebook’s vice president of Messaging Products David Marcus demoed how seamless the apps work within Messenger. “Emotion and expression are core to the way we communicate every day. Email and text are great but they left something behind.”

Marcus said that Facebook teamed up with the developers to tap into their creativity and find new ways of helping people to express themselves.

“Now you will be able to access lots of things within Messenger – apps, memes … new apps you can disover with a short description.”

He showed how mid-conversation a user could send a GIF using Giphy, for example, and the recipient could then download the app from the Facebook App Store from within the thread.

“We have worked with a lot of partners. ESPN have built an awesome curated content app and JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has built a special effects app that gives the power of Hollywood special effects within Messenger.”

Businesses on Messenger

Good entrepreneurs see opportunities by attempting to fix problems and you can tell that this thinking pervades Facebook. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told F8 last night that the e-commerce model as we know it is broken and there is an opportunity to harness the power of Messenger to make the act of purchasing online a lot more fun, engaging and frictionless.

Facebook revealed Businesses on Messenger which allows consumers to talk with a brand as soon as they’ve acquired something, be it clothes or technology. They can see a map in their Messenger thread to show where the order is, they can change their order just by saying so in a thread and learn more from business reps about the product or service.

“I don’t know anyone who likes calling businesses,” Zuckerberg said. “But how useful would it be if you could just message a business and instantly get information.

“The key is starting these conversations and the right time,” Zuckerberg said, introducing the new Businesses on Messenger service. “If you need to change your order, receive a receipt, track your package, helping people to communicate more naturally with businesses is going to improve everyone’s life.”

Marcus returned to the stage and pointed out that the old relationships people had with their retailers has been lost with e-commerce and Facebook is out to reinvent how people and businesses communicate.

“When you buy things online you receive a lot of emails and it is virtually impossible to create chat services on mobile,” Marcus said as he launched into a demo of how Businesses on Messenger could transform customer service forever.

He showed how he ordered a sweater from US clothing e-tailer Everlane. As soon as he ordered it and selected a Messenger update option a map appeared showing the real-time status of his order. As soon as he wanted to change his order to a different colour he said so in the Messenger Thread and got an instant thumbs up in response.

“We want to make businesses first class citizens just like people. You can interact with the business in one canonical thread. We are introducing personal back into online shopping and mobile and will be launching Businesses on Messenger in the next few weeks with services powered by Zendesk.

“We are super-excited because we feel that together we can reinvent how 1bn people communicate every day.”

Parse and the internet of things

What was particularly interesting about F8 last night was the sheer scale of Facebook’s app economy and the role Facebook plays in the developer community. What is even more fascinating is how Facebook intends to go further and enable the arteries and the sinews of the internet of things.

When we met Parse founder Ilya Sukhar at the Web Summit in November, he was dead serious about how Parse – the company Facebook acquired in 2013 for US$85m – had already powered over 260,000 apps including those of Ferrari, The Food Network and Sesame Street and was going to go further.

Last night he revealed that over 400,000 developers are building apps using Parse. “In the last year 85pc of the top apps on Parse were built outside the US. We have over 500m app device pairs on Parse talking to servers.”

He indicated how one such app Dubsmash, a fun video messaging app, saw over 10m installs in its first month.

“Apps using Parse Push reach 150m people every day resulting in over 4bn notifications every month.

“But what’s next? Where’s the world going? Back in 2011 the world of tools for developers focused on tools for developers focused on browser apps for desktops and laptops.

“In 2015 the world is getting better and there is a shift to more devices. There are currently 5bn devices online right now and we’ll get to 25bn in the next fivbe years.

“Microprocessors and connectivity will be in everything, in your home, on bicycles, your pants …”

Sukhar last night unveiled Facebook’s new set of SDKs for the internet of things. “You can prototype in Arduino and push your app into the cloud with just a few lines of code. It is going to be just like any Parse SDK. We are also releasing reference SDKs so that chipset manufacturers can bake in support for Parse.”

Facebook’s video ambitions

If you thought Facebook’s ambitions for the internet of things and e-commerce were breath-taking, then keep an eye on its plans for media and video.

Facebook’s head of Platform Deborah Liu revealed new tools that allowed publishers such as Buzzfeed to unite comments on their websites with comments people are making in Facebook on Applinks. She revealed that every day some 7bn URLs to articles are shared on Facebook. “For publishers this means a much greater engagement and a richer media conversation.”

Liu also revealed that every day people are viewing 3bn videos on video and to increase Facebook’s role in the video market the social network is releasing a new embeddable video player that will increase the spread of videos from Facebook to the wider internet.

Last night we got a glimpse of a company that always had developers in its DNA morph into a company that is straining at the bit to provide the nuts and bolts of a broader, more pervasive but ultimately more personal internet of the future.

Mark Zuckerberg image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years