As Apple has WWDC and Google has I/O, so Facebook has F8: the social network’s big annual conference has steadily grown, from a way to speak to developers about the upcoming changes to its platform to an event where the whole world hears about the exciting new products coming from the House of Zuckerberg.
Facebook’s chief executive may not quite have Steve Jobs’ infamous “reality distortion field” – the social network’s ideal world is more like an artificial reality where none of the outside world penetrates – but he can still wow when he wants to. Here’s the eight biggest things to take away from the San Jose event.
1) Augmented reality is Facebook’s big future bet
Facebook wants you to use its camera for more than just taking pictures. If there’s one message from this year’s F8, it’s that.
Sure, you’ll still be able to snap pics and send them to friends. But the company also wants to paste more and more detail over the real world to create a second, “augmented” layer.
Some of the features of this “camera platform” sound genuinely useful – or at least, fun. Facebook wants you to share pics of your run with your pace and time superimposed over the top, for instance, and it dreams of a day when you’ll be able to leave a review of a restaurant by pinning it to the window. (That one feels like it would have a few kinks to work out in practice, though).
Other features seem … less good. Demonstrating one simpler capability of the new camera, Zuckerberg showed that “you can add a second coffee mug” to your picture, “so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone”. Which is surely the bleakest thing ever said in a billion-dollar company’s presentation.
2) It’s still copying Snapchat
One word that wasn’t said on stage, though: Snapchat. Which is odd, because we’ve seen a lot of these features before. The ephemeral messaging app/social network for hip teens in rich countries popularised the idea of the AR camera, steadily upgrading its own offering from something which simply whacked a few location-aware images over the top of a pic to facial recognition-based “lenses” which turn you into a dog. This is something teens like.
Facebook’s photocopiers have been overheating with the pace at which it’s been replicating Snapchat’s features, so it was probably looking forward to the ability to finally overtake its rival in LA. But it was not to be: six hours before F8 started, Snapchat released its own AR functionality, which it’s calling World Lenses. The new lenses are slightly less feature-rich than what Facebook is promising, but unlike the Camera Platform, it’s already on phones now. Sure, it’s sneaky and underhanded to gazump Facebook like that, but Snapchat’s owed a bit of payback. Score? Snapchat 21: 0 Facebook.
3) Facebook hasn’t given up on VR
Facebook hasn’t forgotten about Oculus, the virtual reality company it bought in 2013 for a cool $2bn. It may have quietly lost the company’s co-founder a few months after it was revealed that he funded a “shitposting for Trump” political action committee, but the product itself continues to see new support. Case in point? Facebook Spaces, a VR chatroom where you and your friends can hang out and do stuff.
It’s not much different from a number of apps on Oculus today, like Bigscreen, which let you chill with other people in VR – except that it’s tied in to Facebook proper, meaning that its going to be a lot easier to integrate with your existing friendship group. The company is also making efforts to include people who don’t own the expensive hardware necessary to experience true VR, letting simple smartphone users join in via a flat video call.
4) It’s thinking a lot about the money
One of the onstage executives presenting alongside Zuckerberg was Deborah Liu, whose day job is the company’s director of product management for monetisation. That should be enough of a hint about how Facebook hopes this bold new frontier should work for its bottom line
Liu’s past at the company was heading up the Mobile App Install Ad product – those adverts on your newsfeed that ask you to install new apps and games – but this time, she was talking about all the branding opportunities the Camera Platform offers. That includes those restaurant reviews that the company imagines people leaving tacked up, discoverable by a phone; and it also includes the more personal example of a birthday message generated over a pic of her daughter. “I can make her birthday even more meaningful,” Liu said as she triggered some visual effects.
It’s not just adverts, though. The company also hopes to give developers the chance to use its visual tools to make their own AI-powered, AR-realised applications and plugins for the camera, potentially triggering another application boom comparable to the creation of the smartphone in the first place.
5) Messenger is becoming more like WeChat
Not everything was about Facebook itself. The company’s second biggest product, Messenger, also got a raft of features, helping bring it further towards Facebook’s clear inspiration for it: Chinese messaging app WeChat.
While Messenger has a billion users, it’s not as embedded in their daily lives to the extent that WeChat has achieved in its home nation. There, the chat app is used to pay bills, book plane tickets and follow celebrities, as well as simple one-to-one communication.
Facebook’s early experiments with chatbots was a step in that direction, and now the company has announced an overhaul of its platform to try and bring more and more of our connected life in to Messenger. That means simple fun, like turn-by-turn multiplayer games and bots who’ll play with you if your friends aren’t available; it means connection with the physical world, thanks to the addition of a new form of QR code that you can scan at events to immediately connect with brands; and it means new discovery features to let you actually find some of those bots without needing to be told where they are beforehand.
6) It’s working with the likes of Apple and Spotify
Facebook can’t do it alone, though: unifying the world behind Messenger also means the world needs to join in. So one of the biggest coups for the platform is the fact that it’s managed to convince Apple to build an extension for Apple Music, so that users can browse their music library from within the app to send songs to friends.
It’s not quite the first time Apple Music’s made it outside of Apple’s walled garden – the company broke new ground when it released an Android app for the streaming service – but it shows that both companies are serious about wider support for their new products.
Apple Music’s not the only one to join up, though; Spotify has a similar extension. And unlike Apple, which could only say that the Music add-on is “coming soon”, Spotify’s extension is launching alongside the Messenger platform.
7) It wants to crush the workplace chat tool Slack
One more thing: Facebook wants to be in your workplace, wherever that is. The company’s already revealed its product for businesses, called Workplace (made in Britain, for those patriotic firms) but it was previously pitched at fairly large companies. With pricing that started at $3 per user per month, it wasn’t something that an uncertain corporation would be able to jump onboard with, even though there is a three-month free trial.
Now, Facebook’s taken a lead from indie darling Slack, which sparked the trend for business software being cool in the first place. By the end of this year, a new “standard” tier will be free for any company that wants to use it, with businesses only needing to pay if they want more and better admin tools and cloud storage.
Of course, while Facebook is encroaching on Slack’s turf, Slack too is beginning to move on to Facebook’s: the very existence of the free tier of the app means that some users have found extremely non-commercial uses of it, creating Slack groups to discuss everything from podcasts to role playing games.
8) Facebook doesn’t yet have any answers to its biggest problems
Just hours before Mark Zuckerberg took the stage, Steve Stephens killed himself. He had sparked a manhunt after posting a video and later a livestream on Facebook, in which he killed a man, and discussed murdering more than a dozen other people.
Zuckerberg addressed the murder directly, expressing his condolences to the family of Robert Godwin Sr, the 74 year old man whose murder was uploaded to the site. “We have a lot more to do here and are reminded of this this week by the tragedy in Cleveland,” he said. “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Robert Godwin Sr … and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”
But despite the words, Zuckerberg announced nothing to address the problem. While a murder in the real world may feel like it isn’t a problem for Facebook to solve, the company has to deal with the fact that there is now a person known in the press as the “Facebook Killer”. Against that background, discussing the possibility of pinning AR reviews of a cafe without addressing the abuse possibilities, or exploring the potential for VR to bring people together without also addressing the ways it can make harassment more damaging, looks potentially foolhardy.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010