From dating to a Clear History feature, the business of innovation goes on at Facebook.
Last night (1 May) at F8, Facebook’s developer shindig, everyone expected to see an embattled and defensive company shook to the core by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
“This has been an intense year – I can’t believe we are only four months in,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg joked with developers.
‘Cambridge Analytica was a major breach of trust. We need to make sure this never happens again’
– MARK ZUCKERBERG
But, much like how South Korean tech giant Samsung bounced back from the Note7 exploding phone debacle, you got the sense that Facebook intends to come bounding off the battlefield, a little bruised but a lot wiser. Or, to paraphrase Churchill, when you are going through hell, just keep going.
And hellish it has been. UK MPs are threatening Zuckerberg with a formal summons if he doesn’t appear before their committee to explain what Facebook does with data, and the timing of WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum’s departure in an apparent clash over privacy and encryption is also awkward.
Nonchalant, Zuckerberg pressed on and emphasised the company’s mission. “We are all here because we are optimistic about the future. There are real challenges to address and we have to keep that sense of optimism.”
He outlined that the company has a broader sense of responsibility and that he wants to see the platform used for good.
“We’ve seen the #MeToo movement and marches organised on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said, adding that it is important for developers to keep building meaningful new services.
“The hard part was figuring out how to move forward on everything else we need to do. We had to ask ourselves, what would the world lose if Facebook disappeared?
“People. Our relationships matter most. This is our DNA. We’ve come a long way, but it surprises me how little … our industry puts people first. Phones are designed around apps and that’s not how people think.
“Part of the solution will be that one day, more of our tech will need to focus on people and our relationships. There is no guarantee that we will get this right. This is hard stuff. We will make mistakes that will have consequences.”
And so, Zuckerberg went on to reveal a set of innovations that not only showed where the company was going as a business, it also revealed just what you can do with a 2.2bn-strong community.
So, what did we learn?
1. Facebook is going into dating, watch out Tinder!
“Is there any industry Facebook won’t try to take over?” That was the view of one young entrepreneur I spoke to last night when he heard Facebook was going into the dating business.
Zuckerberg said: “This is going to be for building long-term relationships, not hook-ups.” But the implication is clear: Facebook is going into dating and Tinder could join the media industry and a slew of other business verticals that Facebook will simply stomp on to feed its revenue-hungry machine, which recorded almost $12bn in sales in the most recent quarter.
“One in three marriages happen online,” Zuckerberg quipped and said that people he meets point at their kids and say ‘thank you’ to him. “We know we are making positive differences in people’s lives but we haven’t built features to help people find partners. Today, we are announcing a set of new features coming soon around dating.”
Unsurprisingly, Match Group, owner of Tinder and OkCupid, saw its stock plummet by more than 17pc when the news was announced.
The way the Facebook dating system will work is that users’ friends won’t see their dating profile and they will only be suggested to people who are not their friends. The drive to connect people will be community-focused and will be anchored around events you are going to and groups that you are part of.
An unlocking feature will let users of the dating platform make their profile visible to other attendees or events or members of groups.
It’s hard to see how this will turn out but there is a certain method to the madness as it creates a context that is more focused than blind dates, and less cold than the swipe-left culture of Tinder.
Not sure how I feel about Facebook – which often feels like a multi-generational family dinner party – as a matchmaker or wingman, but the future is unstoppable.
2. Facebook wants to protect election integrity
Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook was slow to identify Russian interference during the US election race. “We expected traditional attacks and didn’t expect these coordinated attacks and large networks of accounts we weren’t aware of.
“We will never be unprepared for this again. We have AI tools that took down thousands of fake accounts that we traced back to Russia and had taken back their network.”
In recent weeks, Facebook revealed a View Ads feature as part of an effort to make political ads more transparent.
“We want you to be able to see who is running these ads, what other messages they are sending, and have this at a higher standard than TV ads or anything else on the network.
“By the end of this year, we will have 20,000 people working on security.”
As well as these, and AI tools to remove fake accounts or real accounts spreading hoaxes, Facebook will double down on more accurate news, bringing on more and more fact-checking providers.
3. Privacy is Facebook’s new mantra
“Cambridge Analytica was a major breach of trust. We need to make sure this never happens again.”
This was expected to be the awkward part of F8, where developers would find new restrictions on data that could be shared from apps to be unpalatable.
However, judging from the stream from the auditorium at least, Zuckerberg’s musings on privacy were broadly welcomed by developers who want to build serious businesses and services.
He said that compared with 2014, there has been a major change on the platform to prevent the sharing of people’s friends’ information and that Facebook has restricted all kinds of data from being shared.
“There is more we can do. We need to find other bad apps that are out there. If we find anything suspicious, we will bring in independent auditors and tell anyone whose data might be affected.
“With the onset of GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation], we will be asking everyone to review their privacy controls.”
To developers, he said: “We will be putting in stronger protections that will give you more ability to keep building for the long term.”
And that’s the key message from F8: developers need certainty that they can continue to build apps and future businesses on the Facebook platform.
4. Facebook’s Clear History will be the biggest update to the platform
One of the biggest concerns people had about Facebook was its ability to collect data about users whether they used the platform or not, by being able to access their web browsing history and, in turn, sell targeted ads.
At F8, Zuckerberg announced that for the first time, users can opt out of this data collection method.
It revealed a new Clear History feature that allows users to delete their browsing data from Facebook’s servers or ask the company not to collect it at all. It essentially erases data that describes what other sites they have visited.
You can consider this new feature to be a direct result of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal whereby up to 87m people were affected by an app’s ability to gather data on Facebook users without their permission.
It is a big leap of faith for Facebook itself because it will impact the amount of data that the social network will be able to collect about its users to drive targeted ads.
But, in terms of restoring trust, it is potentially a step in the right direction.
5. Facebook is moving into real-time translation on Messenger
This is a game-changer. Until now, the translation game has been dominated by Google and Microsoft on their respective platforms. Microsoft has a sweetheart deal with Huawei that has resulted in a real-time, AI-based translation app on devices such as the Mate 10 Pro and the P20.
Last night at F8, Facebook revealed that it will be rolling out chat translation within Messenger.
The service will start slowly with just English-Spanish conversions for users in the US who start a conversation through Facebook Marketplace. However, in the coming weeks, all US Messenger users will get access and, over time, it will launch in additional languages and countries.
This is a pivotal move for Facebook and could be the glue that will make Messenger stick, cementing its role as the nemesis for SMS.
It is worth wondering if this translation AI will make its way over to WhatsApp, too.
6. Facebook is an AI powerhouse
Zuckerberg’s love for AI has been well documented but there was no mention of his personal robot butler that he wants to build.
However, we have learned that as well as more than 200,000 active developers focused on Messenger, there are 300,000 active bots – up from 100,000 last year – that facilitate 8bn messages between people and businesses every month. That is up 400pc on last year.
The head of Messenger, David Marcus, also revealed that Facebook is planning to bring augmented reality (AR) apps to Messenger in what could also be a game-changer for marketers and e-commerce players.
7. Facebook’s $3bn bet on VR is about to pay off big time
We also learned that the Oculus Go virtual reality (VR) headset that Facebook wants to bring to the mainstream is available for purchase at $199.
The VR headset is a standalone device, meaning it doesn’t require a high-end smartphone or an expensive high-powered PC to make it work. The key difference is that the device has no wires or cables, and users simply take it out of the box and switch it on and become immersed in the VR or AR world. This quintessentially addresses the problem that has prevented VR from going mainstream – all the messing with wires or the need for high-end compute power.
The $199 price point is attractive but the ball is in Facebook’s court to market it and make it mainstream.
Ever since Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 for $3bn, there have been question marks over the future of VR and whether it was just another Zuckerberg hobby horse. But, judging by the positive reviews coming out of Silicon Valley, the Oculus Go may see that bet pay off.
8. Speaking of hardware, Facebook has more tricks up its sleeve
A decade ago, Amazon’s foray into hardware with the Kindle was amusing at first and then it became a serious hardware player, with devices such as the Fire tablet and, most notably, the Alexa-powered Echo.
Google is quite similar with its range of Pixel smartphones and Chrome media devices, not to mention AI speakers and, soon, self-driving cars.
But what is Facebook up to? Well, as we have seen with Oculus Go, Facebook has begun to discover its mojo in hardware terms – and it won’t stop with VR.
Facebook is understood to be considering launching its own smart speakers, starting internationally rather than in the US.
The two speakers are understood to include a voice assistant that is based on the same underlying technology that powered Facebook’s M chatbot, which was discontinued in January. One will come with a camera and touchscreen and will connect directly to Facebook Messenger. Both will come equipped with an AI-powered smart voice assistant tied to the M AI engine. (Take a close cue from what Facebook is doing with its aforementioned translation AI system.)
These are effectively going to be Facebook’s answer to the Amazon Echo and Alphabet’s Google Home products.
Zuckerberg et al might be cleverly about to kick-start a new epoch in terms of global communication and cross-border commerce.
And at its heart? AI.