(This article is a reprinted version of the original article published on Vox.com on April 29, 2019.)
In late 2011, Facebook found itself in a terrifying position for a soon-to-be-public tech company: It was behind.
After months of planning, Facebook had just wrapped up its annual F8 developer conference, a chance to show off new products and features to a room full of partners and press. The unveiling, which came on the heels of a company-wide “lockdown” following the unexpected announcement from earlier that summer that Google was building its own social network, was well received. Facebook demoed a newly designed user profile — they called it “Timeline” — and comedian Andy Samberg kicked off the event with a Saturday Night Live-style impersonation of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, complete with signature black zip-up hoodie.
But as the dust settled on F8 and Facebook executives started to look ahead to what was next, the company’s problem was suddenly obvious: While Facebook had been heads-down for nine months building and preparing for its big conference, the rest of the world was rapidly moving toward smartphones and mobile devices. Facebook, too, was growing quickly on mobile phones but wasn’t prioritizing them at all internally. Facebook still thought of itself primarily as a desktop service, and nearly everything it unveiled at F8 was built for the web.
Facebook had mobile apps for iPhones and Android phones, but they were built using the technology known as HTML5 — a relatively new software language good for building web pages but not for building apps native to iOS and Android devices. Facebook had universalized its code, using the same technology for all of its services instead of building apps specifically designed for each operating system. As a result, the apps were buggy, slow, and prone to crashes.
As Zuckerberg would admit two years later: “We took a bad bet.”
What happened next has gone down in Facebook lore. In early 2012, Zuckerberg redirected the entire company to focus on mobile. He all but abandoned his laptop and started working primarily from a mobile device. Product managers disabled their own desktop versions of Facebook, forcing themselves to use the mobile version instead. In meetings, Zuckerberg expected employees to present the mobile version of new products first. If they didn’t, the meeting was over. Facebook hired new iOS and Android engineers, held week-long boot camps to get their existing employees up to speed, and embedded mobile engineers onto every product team at the company.
Zuckerberg even wrote the shareholder letter for the company’s IPO filing — all 2,000-plus words of it — on his phone. Facebook was all in on mobile.
That company-wide pivot — despite the bad timing, considering the then-looming IPO — is widely considered the most important move in Facebook’s history. It was a recognition by Zuckerberg that mobile, not desktop computers, was the next great platform. If Facebook wanted to survive, it would have to do so by riding that mobile wave. Today, with a market cap of over $500 billion and more than 2.3 billion users worldwide, it has been a sweet ride.
Eight years later, Facebook is going through another pivot. Mobile devices are still far and away the most popular way people use Facebook services, but after two years of privacy debacles, misinformation campaigns, and political polarization, how they interact with those services is starting to change
Private messages and disappearing Stories — popular on Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp — are in. The mostly public, mostly permanent, social network on which Facebook built its empire is reaching a plateau. The Facebook app is no longer growing in the US or Europe. Some estimate that the social network’s user base is actually shrinking. Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that the company is shifting toward private, encrypted messaging is the most striking sign yet that Facebook and News Feed are no longer the company’s future.
“If you look at the ways that people are interacting now online that are growing the fastest, it’s messages, it’s small groups, and it’s ephemeral stories. And these all have the property that they’re more private than these digital town square-type equivalents,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner that was published in April. “So I don’t know whether you call this a pivot … but it’s clear that this is the next big thing people want to get built.”
Zuckerberg isn’t just thinking about that reality, he’s already betting on it. He acquired the virtual reality headset maker Oculus for $3 billion back in 2014. He’s building augmented reality glasses, and Facebook launched a video chat device for the living room last November meant to rival other in-home devices, like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home. CNBC reported this month that Facebook is even building its own voice assistant, and the company has a blockchain team working on secure payments through digital tokens, presumably akin to bitcoin.
It’s possible the physical technology people use Facebook on will change, too. You might connect with friends through a VR headset or through AR glasses. Maybe voice commands will be the dominant way people interact online, through devices like in-home speakers. If so, Facebook will need to adjust accordingly.
Facebook employees use a lot of code names. Most new projects and initiatives have one — the new wireless virtual reality headset Oculus unveiled last September was previously codenamed “Santa Cruz.” Other hardware projects at Facebook have used code names like “Ripley,” “Sequoia,” and “Aloha.”
Project “Oxygen,” though, isn’t code for a fun new hardware device. It’s Facebook’s plan to protect itself against Google.
Oxygen, according to four sources familiar with the plan, is intended as a defense against a bigger, longer-term issue that Google created for Facebook: As the owner of the Android operating system — and thus the Google Play store where billions of people around the world can download Facebook’s products — Google has a virtual chokehold over Facebook’s distribution. Oxygen is the “break glass in case of emergency” plan Facebook put in place in case Google ever decides to suck all the oxygen out of the room.
Numerous executives who have worked with Zuckerberg say he can be paranoid about the competition — a paranoia that can be felt among the rest of Facebook’s employees. Before Facebook’s IPO, Zuckerberg left a book on every employee’s desk full of inspirational quotes, according to Wired. One near the back of the book read, “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” Like any successful business executive, Zuckerberg is constantly looking for leverage over potential competitors, especially Google and Apple.
“We still have a lot of work to do on mobile, but at this point, we feel strong enough in our position that strategically we also want to start focusing on building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile,” Zuckerberg said on a 2014 analyst call announcing the purchase of Oculus. “Today’s acquisition is a long-term bet on the future of computing.”
In addition to Oculus, which has unveiled four different iterations of its virtual reality headset, Facebook has a number of other hardware projects in the works.
One of the most nascent, and perhaps most important, of these bets, is a pair of augmented reality glasses that Facebook first announced last spring. The public has yet to see a working prototype, but what augmented reality offers that virtual reality doesn’t is mobility. Virtual reality is great for immersing yourself in another world while sitting on your couch. Augmented reality, however, would be able to overlay digital objects onto the physical world around you. The thinking is that, like your mobile phone, augmented reality glasses will be portable enough to become a near-constant part of your everyday life.
For Facebook, betting on virtual reality is a stepping stone of sorts to augmented reality.
Imagine walking into a party wearing your Facebook AR glasses. They’ll be able to recognize the people around you using facial recognition technology — even people you’ve never met — and will display their Facebook profile next to their face, hovering for you to see through the glasses but completely invisible to anyone else.
That reality and who will control it will determine the big winners in every industry
At Facebook’s annual F8 conference in 2016, Zuckerberg laid out a 10-year roadmap for the company that he’s referenced numerous times since. The roadmap lists AR and VR as part of the long term plan — the part that’s 10 years out — and mentions them in the same category as Facebook’s internet connectivity efforts.
“I don’t know exactly when it’s going to be a big deal,” Zuckerberg said of virtual reality last April. “I think the reality is Facebook needs to be investing before it is a big thing in order to build some of the muscles to be competitive.”
Knowing what to buy and what to copy takes skill, and Zuckerberg has proven to be the best fast follower in tech. If private messaging is indeed the next big wave of communication — and who’s to say it won’t be? — Zuckerberg laid the groundwork for that four years ago when he acquired WhatsApp and spun out Facebook Messenger into its own standalone product, a signal that it was important enough to exist outside of the core app. Now he’s trying to link all of the company’s messaging features to combine their respective user bases into one massive network
At the end of Zuckerberg’s keynote at F8 2011, he talked about Moore’s Law, the idea that computing power will grow exponentially, and said that Facebook was preparing for a future where the amount that people share grows exponentially, too. “We can look into the future, and we can see what might exist, and it’s going to be really really good,” he said.
When Zuckerberg took the stage at F8 2018 nearly seven years later, he spoke not just about preparing for the future but about building it in a way that aligns with Facebook’s products.
“The world,” he continued, “isn’t moving in this direction by itself. So that is what we are all here to do.”